A survey released this week suggests Illinois’ teacher shortage is getting worse, not better. Eighty-five percent of superintendents who responded said they’re having a tough time finding qualified teachers to fill vacancies. That’s up from 78 percent in 2017.
Lawmakers have been scrambling to figure out how to recruit more teachers. State Rep. Sue Scherer, a Decatur Democrat, is holding a hearing Wednesday afternoon, focused on changing licensure standards for teachers.
There's a reason Scherer was put in charge of a House education committee: She taught for almost 35 years in Macon County public schools. She's hosting a subject matter hearing (meaning no votes will be taken) to consider a variety of proposals to change Illinois' teacher licensing requirements.
Those currently include achieving certain standardized test scores — either a 22 on the ACT, a 1040 on the SAT, or a passing score on what's known as the TAP (Test of Academic Proficiency). Scherer wants to hear other ideas.
"When I went to college, we didn't have to take any of these tests. None," she says. "You took the ACT to get into college, but you could get in on your ACT score or your class rank, at Illinois State, which is where I happened to go. But then there were no more tests, except for the Constitution test at the end."
So does that mean there may be teachers in our classrooms right now who haven't necessarily scored high on their ACT or SAT or taken the TAP?
"Oh yeah, everywhere," Scherer says. "There's all kinds of Disney Teacher of the Year award-winners who did not pass all those tests, because they didn't used to be required.
"So when I went to school, if you go to the early '70s, my brother and several of my friends that are older — their college was paid for, because there was a severe teacher shortage. So they got free tuition all four years, if they promised to teach for, I don't know, five or 10 years.
"So then by the time I came along, you know, in the later '70s, then there was a stack a foot high of applications for one job. So almost everyone came out when I did had to either be an aide or a substitute for a year to get their foot in the door to try to get a job. So now if you look at the history, in order to try to weed it down, they kept adding one test after another after another," she says. "And then they just, you know, they didn't do anything with the salaries, and they messed with their pensions and their evaluations and their tenure and all that till we're now we're in a severe shortage, right?"
There's certain qualities that teachers need to have that maybe we don't have a test for, Scherer says.
"You need to have patience; you can't test for that. You need to have compassion; you can't test for that. You need to like kids," she says. "I mean, some people just don't really like being around children. You need to have a tolerance for things that little kids do, if you're teaching little kids. Or if you're going to teach high school, you've got to be able to relate to high school students, because high school teachers can't always teach grade school and vice versa. It's you know, it's just whatever way God made you.
"I'm not saying you don't have to know your academics and be able to teach the subject matter. But... I just, I'm just not a believer in the test situation."
Of course, licensure isn't the only factor in teacher recruitment. In the weeks ahead, Scherer plans to hold another hearing on what she calls the "potpourri" of proposals addressing teacher preparation and compensation.