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ISBE Teacher Shortage Recap

Carter Staley
NPR Illinois

 The Illinois State Board of Education this week hosted a conversation on possible solutions to the state’s teacher shortage. We discussed the highlights on Statewide.

Sean Crawford: You spent the morning at the State Board. They discussed changing the requirements for getting a teaching certificate in the state. It was obviously a long discussion. What do we need to know about it?

Rhodes: It was, I would say close to three hours. And in a very crowded room. There was big turnout for this topic. So they started out by explaining all the different tests that teachers have to take. The first one is called "basic skills." And until recently, you had to take that before you could even become, you know, take junior level education courses, but it's  been really problematic since around 2012, when they raised the cut scores. So at that time, they started accepting also certain high scores on the ACT or SAT, in lieu of the basic skills.

But anyway, once you get past that hurdle, then there's two other big tests. One is called the edTPA. It involves video. You have to video yourself as a student teacher, and that has a 97% pass rate. And then there's also specific content area tests.

Crawford: Those are in addition to other coursework, of course, and student teaching. So if they're talking about testing, does that mean they think testing is the cause of the teacher shortage?

Rhodes: Well, definitely not the only cause, but a huge part. Because like I said, that basic skills test for a long time prevented people from even coming into, you know, the upper level courses of teacher education, so it just shut out a bunch of potential teachers. So there's legislation moving, there's mainly three bills that would each take away at least one of those tests. Two those bills would eliminate the basic skills barrier completely, including the SAT and ACT cut  scores. One of those bills is sponsored by State Rep. Sue Scherer. She's a former teacher. The other bill is sponsored by State Sen. Andy Manar. He's also a former teacher. And he's considered a pretty powerful force in education policy. He's the guy that passed school funding reform.

Crawford: Illinois is going to get rid of a basic skills test? That doesn't sound good.

Rhodes: Yeah, I know it doesn't sound good. And I think sound is the key word. So ... let's think about your iPhone, I had the first iPhone, and it let me talk and text and maybe take pictures. The iPhone I have now takes movies and navigates me down the road and tells me where cops are — not that I need that, but it would tell me where there's cops on the road. And it's still called an iPhone, right? So the basic skills test is like that. It's been in use since 1988, but it's been redesigned multiple times, and the cut scores have been increased. And yesterday, Jason Helfer was testifying, he's the ISBE administrator, in charge of teaching and learning. And he made a point of choosing his words very carefully, when he talked about the agency raising the cut scores, and he called that a "questionable practice."

I should clarify, this is not a done deal. Right now, the only thing that's for sure going to happen is that the test called basic skills is going to be phased out by June 30th. But currently, teaching candidates will still have to achieve high scores on either the ACT or the SAT, unless one of those bills that I mentioned makes it in the statute,

Crawford: Does the State Board of Education support this legislation?

Rhodes: That depends on whether you're talking about that the State Board as an agency, or as board members themselves. So the agency has a staff that stays in place. The board members are appointed by the current Governor's administration. So we have a new governor, and we have a new board, almost totally (there's one holdover from the previous board). And this conversation has caught them a little off guard, you know, they got sworn in about five minutes ago. And I think they're really trying to make sure that they don't lower the standards. They each have a kind of regional perspective. They know what's happening where they are.

But the agency staff, on the other hand, they've been struggling with this for more than a year. They've been going around doing listening tours, they've been visiting districts at a meeting different people, different superintendents who have really, you know, desperate needs for teachers. And so their conversation is more nuanced. That said, they are officially neutral on the basic skills testing legislation.

Crawford: And what about people who want to do what's called alternative licensing, maybe second career people?

Rhodes: Well, that pipeline also got throttled over the past few years, because at the same time that the state raised its cut scores, we also doubled the time required for alternative licensure. It used to be one year; now it's two. Changing it back to one year would take a change in statute, and I don't think anyone has filed a bill to do that yet. But there was a robust conversation about that. So I wouldn't be surprised to see it slipped into a shell bill, maybe.

Crawford: You did a story earlier this year about paraprofessionals providing a possible solution to the teacher shortage. Did that come up this week?

Rhodes: It did. Two different superintendents testified yesterday about parapros that they have working in their schools, and they told these really poignant stories about how they want to teach but they can't get past the barriers. One had failed the basic skills test, then tried to hit the mark on the ACT and failed that. The other one just can't afford to take unpaid time off to do student teaching. Actually, Sen. Manar's bill would allow student teachers to be paid.

Crawford: So Dusty, one of the things that was not touched on was salary for teachers?

Rhodes: No. And Manar also has that kind of infamous bill that would make $40,000 a year the minimum salary for teachers. And that didn't really come up yesterday. Everybody kind of knows teachers need to be paid more.


After a long career in newspapers (Dallas Observer, The Dallas Morning News, Anchorage Daily News, Illinois Times), Dusty returned to school to get a master's degree in multimedia journalism. She began work as Education Desk reporter at NPR Illinois in September 2014.
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