It was a great day in South Carolina when our General Assembly decided to make education reform its priority for the current legislative session. The discussions and debates have been uncomfortable at times and in some instances a little contentious. In my view, if the dialogue continues with productive intent, the outcomes could very well set our state on a path to unlimited opportunity and unbridled greatness.
A significant challenge for us is our decades-long tolerance of a “minimally adequate” educational system. While some would like to see more advocacy directly connected to student achievement, my 25 years as a classroom teacher, leads me into the company of those who view the recruitment and retention of qualified and committed classroom teachers as a key pathway to better academic opportunities for and performance of all students. It is imperative that we support bold and innovative steps to recruit and retain qualified teachers.
According to the SC Annual Educator Supply and Demand report – published by the Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention, & Advancement (CERRA) – 6700 teachers left their positions in 2018 and 4900 of them left teaching in SC public schools altogether. The state’s colleges and universities graduated less than 1700 candidates from teacher education programs. South Carolina joins the nation in experiencing a severe teacher shortage.
The House of Representatives has made some promising proposals – raising salaries, providing tax incentives and paying for teacher’s children to attend college – in an effort to recruit new teachers and retain the ones we have. While those are interesting to consider, I hope the Senate will explore specific ways to alleviate obstacles for people to become teachers in the first place. This is an issue Senators should give further attention.
We need more teachers in our classrooms and that requires more candid conversations about removing unnecessary barriers to teaching, like the licensing requirements. A study by the National Council on Teacher Quality disclosed 46 percent of teacher candidates do not pass the teacher licensing exam on their first attempt. The question then becomes, do teacher licensure exams effectively assess one’s ability to teach? Many would argue that they do not.
In addition to four years of undergraduate coursework in teaching pedagogy and practice, teacher education programs require classroom observations, interactive practicums, and comprehensive student-teaching experience before graduation. None of which can be properly measured by multiple choice questions. For starters, policy influencers and makers should consider a two-tiered path to certification where graduates from teacher education programs begin their teaching careers under a preliminary certification and are allowed up to five years to earn professional certification.
Requirements for professional licensure may still include passing the current Praxis licensing exams, but may also involve alternatives like obtaining a master’s degree in teaching or specific subject areas, or acquiring a national teaching certification. A better idea may be to eliminate the Praxis requirement for candidates who graduate from a teacher education program at one of our state’s colleges or universities. Many SC school districts already have mentorship programs for novice teachers to ensure a smooth transition into teaching and retain teachers through the critical first five years.
Either of these options would increase the size of the pool from which districts can choose. A larger pool of candidates would likely ensure a more diversified teaching force, another challenge for SC classrooms. South Carolina must alleviate teacher recruitment and retention woes and provide a more diverse cadre of teacher candidates for the increasingly diverse student population. Reconstructing the path to teacher certification would provide more opportunities to recruit and retain teachers and lead us further along the pursuit of greatness.