by Marley Parish, Pennsylvania Capital-Star
July 18, 2022

Roughly six months left in office, the Wolf administration — aiming to recruit and retain educators, build a more diverse workforce, and reduce barriers to entering the profession — has released a three-year strategic plan to address the staffing shortage in Pennsylvania schools.

The strategy, developed by the Department of Education through feedback sessions with educators across the state, includes 50 steps to address the staffing crisis, which the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated, and outlines diversity and professional development goals to be achieved by August 2025.

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, who campaigned on and staked his legacy on education reform, has increased education funding by more than $3.7 billion since he took office in 2015. The most recent state budget, signed by the governor earlier this month, included a $1.8 billion increase in education spending.

Wolf also approved an amended Public School Code, which included a three-year waiver for the basic skills assessment for education candidates. The changes also helped establish a committee to develop programs of study for high school students interested in education careers and a grant program for colleges to increase participation in the profession.

Continued investments in education and the 20-page strategic plan are part of a series of steps to ensure high-quality classroom instruction in Pennsylvania, state officials and education advocates said during a press conference in Harrisburg on Monday.

And while the Wolf administration has until January 2023 before a new governor takes over, Eric Hagarty, acting secretary of education, said he is hopeful the strategy will get the next administration “off on the right foot.”

Workforce shortage

Though he could not quantify the educator shortage — saying each district “has unique circumstances” — Hagarty said the crisis is the “most urgent” issue facing Pennsylvania schools.

He added that the implication of leaving the crisis unaddressed will result in larger class sizes and fewer program offerings.

“We are going to work with each school district to partner with them to set unique targets for whatever their unique circumstances might be,” Hagarty said about how the administration measures success.

Since 2010, Pennsylvania has seen a 66 percent decline in Instructional I teaching certificates, the state’s most basic teaching accreditation awarded to graduates who pass their certification tests, issued to in-state graduates. Data from the Department of Education also reflect a 58 percent decline in certificates issued to those planning to work out-of-state.

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“For the last decade, we’ve seen a dramatic decrease in people entering the field of education. Ten years ago, roughly 20,000 new teachers were entering our classrooms each year,” Hagarty said. “But last year, there were only around 6,000 who did so. To make matters worse, the rate of teachers leaving the field is also accelerating.”

In a February survey from the National Education Association, which represents nearly 3 million educators, 99 percent of respondents reported burnout — an occupational phenomenon caused by exhaustion, cynicism, and reduced efficacy, as defined by the World Health Organization — as a “serious problem.”

Fifty-five percent said they are ready to leave the profession earlier than planned.

Society falls apart without teachers, Laura Boyce, executive director of the teacher-led policy group Teach Plus Pennsylvania, said. 

“That’s why Pennsylvania’s educator shortage is the biggest threat facing not only our educational system but our future prosperity as a commonwealth,” she said. “If schools are engines of educational and economic opportunity, then educators are the conductors who keep the train moving forward. And at this pivotal moment in our history, the train is dangerously close to going off the tracks.”

By August 2025, the Department of Education — through enhanced partnerships and recruitment efforts — hopes to increase the number of pre-kindergarten and K-12 educator candidates enrolled in approved preparation programs from 18,000 to 21,600. The plan also aims to increase the number of candidates of color enrolled in preparation programs from 14 percent to 25 percent.

State and education officials also hope to decrease the number of school vacancies by August 2025 but have yet to set a baseline in the plan. The plan also outlines efforts to increase the number of approved educator preparation programs that set and meet admission targets based on identified statewide or local workforce needs.

According to the strategy, the Department of Education plans to work with K-12 schools, colleges, universities, and intermediate units to develop recruitment strategies to attract and retain candidates for preparation programs. State officials plan to work with the State Board of Education and the General Assembly to make necessary policy changes to program entry requirements and identify the most effective pathways into education.

Increasing diversity

Of the 7,168 teachers of color employed in Pennsylvania during the 2019-20 school year, 6,160 remained employed at the same school in the 2020-21 academic year. And 660 of the 5,039 teachers in their first year of experience last year were teachers of color, according to state data.

“Our children in Pennsylvania deserve educators who look like them, who hail from their communities, who share their experiences, and recognize the rich assets that those children bring to their schools each and every single day,” Andrea Terrero Gabbadon, a visiting assistant professor at Swarthmore College and Pennsylvania Educator Diversity Consortium representative, said. “And all learners benefit from educators of color.”

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The plan aims to increase the percentage of educators of color entering the profession from 13 percent to 25 percent by August 2025.

Officials also propose increasing the number of educators of color who have access to mentoring and support programs; however, a baseline has yet to be established. The strategy also aims to increase retention rates among educators of color from 80 percent to 90 percent.

“This strategy marks a necessary step in the right direction for our children, our schools, and our communities,” she said.

Hagarty said the state will develop a publicly available data collection and reporting system to measure progress on meeting diversity goals. The plan also includes proposed partnerships with nonprofit organizations working to develop recruitment, training, and mentoring programs for middle and high school students from diverse backgrounds to identify and recruit future teachers.

Certification process

In recent months, school administrators and education advocates have called for reform to the certification process, specifically to create a streamlined process for certification applicants.

The Department of Education’s plan proposes establishing an average processing time for instructional applicants of 15 days — except for applicants requiring clarification or further investigation. 

By August 2025, the Wolf administration hopes that at least 80 percent of applicants will rate the certification process as “highly efficient” or “effective,” aims to identify whether there is a gap between the success rates of certification applicants by race, ethnicity, or linguistic background, and decrease possible gaps.

Pennsylvania Association of Colleges and Teacher Educators President John Ward promoted the three-year moratorium on basic skills testing, calling it “a significant hurdle to many of our students in teacher education.” He added that the assessment also created a cost barrier for some students.

The plan also proposes codifying proven certification improvements through state law, regulations, or policy guidance to ensure an efficient process.

Preparation

The Department of Education has proposed that at least 75 percent of certified preparation program graduates self-report their program as “strongly prepared” or “adequately prepared” to teach a diverse student population by August 2025.

State officials also want at least 90 percent of educator preparation programs to implement a protocol for recent graduates and their job placement sites to provide feedback on the program’s effectiveness in preparing them for core aspects of their job.

To accomplish these goals, the Department of Education suggests expanding education preparation program providers, identifying data collection and reporting processes to measure success, and conducting reviews of partnerships between programs and hiring entities.

Professional growth, development

Wanting to ensure educators have access to high-quality professional development and leadership opportunities, the Wolf administration proposes enhancing the Department of Education’s existing database “to capture a wider range of professional development providers and offerings.”

The plan proposes soliciting feedback on improving existing training opportunities and discontinuing ineffective programs. The strategy also suggests developing data collection and reporting tools to measure progress on meeting goals and improving surveys that educators submit on their professional learning experiences.

Pennsylvania Capital-Star is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Pennsylvania Capital-Star maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John Micek for questions: info@penncapital-star.com. Follow Pennsylvania Capital-Star on Facebook and Twitter.

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