It’s January, the middle of the school year, and yet tenth grader Lala Bivens is preparing for her first day at a new school.
Bivens started fall classes at One City Preparatory Academy, a new charter middle and high school in Madison, Wisconsin, but on January 13 a teacher shortage forced the school to shut down classes for more than 60 9th and 10th graders, including Bivens, who then had to switch schools.
“Teachers were just dropping like flies,” she told CNN.
Since the beginning of the school year, Bivens says she lost her math, chemistry and history teachers. The charter school’s CEO, Kaleem Caire, tells CNN the school lost “five core academic teachers” since the high school opened last fall.
On the second day of school, the Academy lost a humanities teacher. Then, four weeks later, a math teacher resigned. The school would lose three more teachers throughout the fall
“We have quite a few students who are behind academically, the teachers found it hard, and some teachers came on not knowing how hard it was,” Caire told CNN by phone.
In addition to having to deal with low pay, high student-to-teacher ratios, poor working conditions, post-pandemic learning loss, school shootings and social or emotional issues with students, teachers across the nation are also grappling with culture wars over what they can and cannot teach in the classroom.
Despite a national recruitment effort, Caire says he could not fill the open positions at the school. “Competition is intense. There are 16 school districts in this area.”
By the time Caire made the decision to shut down classes at the school for ninth and tenth graders, he had been filling in as a math teacher while other teachers at the school were teaching more than one class at a time.
The charter school helped Bivens and 61 other students scramble to find new schools midsemester. After a week of missed classes, Bivens’ mother was able to successfully enroll her at a local public high school.
It’s not just Wisconsin
What’s playing out in Madison is the worst-case scenario of a national teacher shortage gone unchecked.
Department of Education data shows 47 states have reported teacher shortages this school year with the problem being most acute in urban and rural areas. Meanwhile, desperate state legislatures are passing laws making it easier to become a public schoolteacher by lowering or eliminating certain qualifications.
The National Council On Teacher Quality told CNN that over the last two years, 23 states have lowered teacher qualification requirements for beginning teachers. That includes lowering or removing assessment tests designed to determine whether teachers have a firm grasp on the subject they will teach and creating emergency teaching certificates to expedite candidates into the classroom without a teaching degree.
Arizona, Florida and Oklahoma have created new pathways for people without a bachelor’s degree to teach in classrooms.
“Making it easier to become a teacher is an overly broad, short-term solution to staffing challenges that amounts to saying we just need ‘warm bodies’ in classrooms. It’s harmful to students and insulting to the teaching profession,” said Heather Peske, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington, DC, think tank that researches and evaluates teacher quality nationwide.
Linda Darling Hammond, president of the Learning Policy Institute, an education research and policy advocacy group, says state efforts to repeal teacher qualification requirements will only exacerbate the teacher shortage.
“When states respond to shortages by reducing standards rather than increasing salaries and improving working conditions, what they’re doing is creating a vicious cycle. They get people in who are underprepared. Those people leave at two to three times the rate of those who have come in with preparation.”
Hammond says at the same time the quality of education for students suffers. “You’re undermining student achievement.”
A Band-aid on a gaping wound
Since Florida opened teaching roles to veterans without a bachelor’s degree last August, the initiative has only netted the state 11 new teachers, according to the state’s education department, raising the question of whether lowering standards is an effective solution to the shortages.
Florida’s Department of Education denies that there’s a teacher shortage and instead says, “The purpose of this new pathway was to value the unique experience military service provides while simply offering additional time for these veterans to obtain a bachelor’s degree and other requirements to receive a full professional educator certification.”
Back in Madison, Superintendent Dr. Carlton Jenkins’ school district will absorb most students transferring from One City Preparatory Academy, despite his district dealing with its own teacher shortage.
“I know our staff is amazing and they do magical type work but it’s still a challenge that will eventually bring stress on the staff here.”
“We have to try to make sure that what they learned aligns with what we are getting ready to teach. We don’t want the regression to happen,” he added.
But the learning loss he fears may have already begun.
“When I didn’t have enough teachers in my classes it was very hard because we didn’t really learn anything,” Bivens tells CNN.
Michael Jones, president of the Madison Teachers Inc. union told CNN “We need to change the way public schools view educators as a never-ending supply of energetic martyrs and treat them more like the professionals they are and that we expect for our children.”
Kimberly Walkes, Bivens mother, says when she sent her daughter to school, she always assumed there would be enough teachers on staff to teach, so she was surprised when she learned that was not the case at her daughter’s school. “You set your child up for greatness and they have so many great opportunities and to hear that was no longer being afforded to her, it broke my heart and brought me to tears.”