In the face of teacher shortages, some states are turning to unconventional strategies to fill vacancies, including relaxing certification requirements or recruiting from outside the education field or among retired educators. While the intent of these strategies is admirable, these approaches may be causing more problems than they solve. At best, most of these strategies are short-term stopgap measures that will exacerbate the disparities the current system produces.
Policymakers do not seem to understand that these teacher vacancies are neither randomly distributed nor do they impact all schools and districts equally. Multiple studies have found a disproportionate rate of teacher vacancies in districts and schools with higher percentages of students living in poverty and from historically underserved populations. These realities are not accounted for in the unconventional staffing strategies.
There are better approaches that center the needs of students by prioritizing placement of effective teachers in the classrooms where they are most needed. First, it is critical to accurately define the problem: Instead of narrowly framing teacher shortages as the need to hire teachers for every classroom, we should consider them an opportunity to do something different to address long-term systemic issues and meet the needs of those students who have been historically underserved.
The better way to address teacher shortages must begin with authentic, meaningful family and community engagement—an element missing from current stopgap strategies. In the schools that have the most difficultly filling vacancies, communities are not regularly engaged to help solve problems. This is a glaring omission: Those people who are most attuned to long-running staffing issues live and work in the community.
Some of the staffing strategies states are considering include plans to attract retired teachers, veterans, other professionals, and people who do not have bachelor’s degrees. These might be effective components of a comprehensive, community-based strategy but only under certain conditions. For these plans to succeed, districts should add an additional requirement to address their cultural competency: that the people recruited for these alternative certifications are selected by the local community.
These community-led recruitment efforts might, for example, only grant provisional licenses to retired teachers, veterans, or other nontraditional teaching candidates who have lived in the same neighborhood as the school for a certain number of years. Such candidates would both be more able to relate to the school’s students and be more likely to remain teaching at the school.
Another component of a comprehensive plan would be to use these alternative certification routes creatively so that schools with the students most historically underserved are more likely to be staffed with fully certified, effective teachers. Research has shown how impactful an effective teacher can be, and if fully licensed teachers are selected by the community and demonstrate cultural competency, they would be much more likely to have a positive impact on students. Examples of community schools that actively and effectively engage the local community and could be used as models for this selection process.
Some states, therefore, might consider only allowing alternatively certified teachers to work in the most highly rated schools in the state. This would free up fully licensed, experienced teachers to teach in schools where they are most needed.
Maybe you just had a negative reaction to this suggestion. But consider that, under current strategies, the overwhelming majority of new, alternatively licensed teachers will be working in historically underserved schools and communities, which are most often the state’s lowest-rated schools. If you are OK with current practice, ask yourself why you have a problem with only allowing these teachers in the highest-performing schools.
Any new strategy to filling teacher shortages should carefully balance the need for greater community input in recruiting effective teachers against the need to put the most experienced teachers in the schools that need them the most. A policy could, for instance, require that new, alternative routes to teacher certification may only be used to work in the highest-rated schools in the state. But the policy could also include exceptions when the local school community—meaning the families who send their children to a particular school—specifically requests an alternative route to certification for a teacher who meets the needs of a historically underserved population.
Creating a more equitable and community-led approach to filling teacher vacancies will require additional resources. In the near term, states and districts should seize on the limited time remaining to use federal COVID relief funds to support these strategies. In doing so, they could use this window of opportunity not only to fill urgent needs today, but also to build a base of experienced, effective teachers in historically underserved schools who could serve as mentors and coaches to new, alternatively certified teachers in the future. Research shows that mentors can be an essential part of school improvement efforts. Therefore, a strategy that increased the number of high-quality mentors would have a positive impact on students.
States should keep that long-term goal in mind. If all the new teachers recruited to fill emergency vacancies were selected in a process that included authentic community engagement, it would be a step on the path to disrupting the inequities and developing a truly equitable system for all. That is a better way to approach this moment.