While schools across the country struggle to fill vacant teaching positions, one Texas district is capitalizing on groundwork it laid in 2019 that has led to a near-zero vacancy rate.
When Ector County Superintendent Scott Muri took over the 33,500-student district in the summer of 2019, there were 356 teaching vacancies—the equivalent of 18 percent of the district’s teaching positions—just weeks before classes were set to begin.
Less than four years later, the district had a vacancy rate of 1 percent across its 44 campuses at the start of this academic year.
That’s not an accident.
When Muri took over as superintendent, he and his administration committed—financially and ideologically—to overhauling the district’s staffing strategy, recognizing that the business-as-usual approach of posting openings and hoping for the best wasn’t working. Since then, the strategy has centered on cultivating the district’s own pipeline of future teachers, and boosting teachers’ pay.
“In public education for many years, we’ve been looking for the silver bullet, and in my opinion as a superintendent, the silver bullet is the teacher,” Muri said. “So, investing deeply in growing, developing, attracting, recruiting, and retaining our teachers is the right investment to make.”
Ector County’s progress is impressive as other districts struggle to fill teaching positions. Though there are no authoritative, national data on teacher vacancies, one report estimated the country had around 36,500 teacher vacancies at the start of the 2022-23 school year.
Regardless of the number, it’s clear that prolonged periods without an experienced teacher in any subject can have a negative effect on students’ learning, and that students who need the most support are affected most. Students with disabilities and English learners often have less access to specialized services when there are not enough teachers or support personnel.
Those impacts would be felt deeply in Ector County, where nearly half of the students live in poverty.
So Ector County leaders took action, investing in a multi-point plan to combat its staffing problems.
First, the district restructured its salary schedules, raising starting teachers’ minimum salary to about $58,000 this year, compared with $52,000 in 2019. On the upper end, with the right combination of education and experience, teachers are now able to earn a larger annual salary than an assistant principal—more than $100,000.
Muri said the opportunity for teachers to make more money than an administrator is a huge draw and has even encouraged some administrators to go back to the classroom.
“For years in this business, people have become administrators … in part because they needed to make more money, but in this district that’s not the case,” Muri said. “We actually have administrators who say, ‘I need to make more money, so I need to become a teacher.’ ”
The district also offers “incentive pay” each year. It rewards the teachers it considers most effective—the top 15 percent, based on their students’ improvement on the Measures of Academic Progress assessments and internal teacher performance evaluations—with bonuses.
Investments and partnerships pay dividends
Simultaneously, the district began building up several career pathways, both for students and existing employees.
About 100 high school students are enrolled in an education-focused career and technical education program that allows them to earn both their high school diploma and an associate degree at the same time. Essentially, when those students graduate from high school, they only need two more years of college before they graduate and are able to pursue their teaching careers.
Ector County also has built a “paraprofessional to teacher” pathway in which paraprofessionals in the district can pursue teaching certifications with the district’s help. Muri said the district pays the full college tuition for paraprofessionals who pursue teaching degrees. Ector County partnered with local colleges to create an expedited three-year program those staff members can pursue, while still working for the district.
As part of another partnership, Ector County developed a paid teacher residency program, in which college seniors are paid $45,000 per year and earn course credit for spending a year working on site alongside a more experienced teacher.
The idea, Muri said, is that those students will return to the district to teach when they graduate, and they’ll do so with the equivalent of one to two years of experience. So, rather than entering with a first-year teacher’s mastery, they’ll come in with more experience.
“One of the things that we discover in research is that a first-year teacher spends a whole lot of time learning the craft, and students ultimately suffer in that teacher’s first year. But after spending a full year with a master teacher, they should enter the profession at a much higher level, which ultimately benefits students,” Muri said.
Muri, who began his career as a teacher, also highlighted that Ector County is one of three districts in Texas with its own teacher licensure program. Along with the two other districts—Houston and Dallas—Ector County is uniquely poised to bring in people who have bachelor’s degrees in subjects other than education but who want to pursue education. It leads those people through a series of courses, then they receive hands-on experience working with a more experienced teacher before they eventually receive their license.
Muri said the district’s shift in mentality—from passively posting a staff opening to an online job board to actively cultivating future teachers—came when leaders examined research showing nearly 60 percent of new teachers hired in New York state over the course of the three years studied worked within 15 miles of where they attended high school.
It was a lightbulb moment for the district’s leaders, who hadn’t previously considered how geography might affect staffing trends.
To be sure, the trend has held true for Ector County, where about 60 percent of the district’s teachers grew up locally, Muri said.
The district realized investing in long-term solutions rather than Band-Aid fixes would yield the greatest rewards, Muri said, and Ector County leaders are hopeful others will follow suit.
“Yes, we’re in a crisis. But we have to play the long game, because the crisis isn’t going to go away in one or two years,” Muri said. “It’s going to be here for a while, and it will be here forever unless we do something about it. So, here, we’ve decided to do something, and it’s making a difference.”
A version of this article appeared in the March 15, 2023 edition of Education Week as A District’s Long-Term Investment In Cultivating Future Teachers Is Paying Off