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How do we address the educator shortage in Illinois? We have the powerful tools to do so.

This was written by Robin Steans of Advance Illinois, a W. Clement & Jessie V. Stone Foundation Grantee, and originally published in the Chicago Tribune on January 9, 2024

When discussing the educator workforce shortages in Illinois, it is evident that the challenges our education system faces are complex. Reporter Shanzeh Ahmad’s recent article in the Tribune highlights the persistent, critical shortage of educators in special education and bilingual classes and sheds light on the disparate impact these shortages have on particular student populations. We must address this issue with urgency.

As our communities continue to recover from the economic, health and social impacts of a pandemic that profoundly and disproportionately affected communities of color, our students continue to struggle. And while all students were affected, it is clear that COVID-19 exacerbated long-standing educational disparities. Accordingly, the need for effective, prepared educators in every classroom and principal’s office has never been greater.

In its recently released report “The State of Our Educator Pipeline 2023,” Advance Illinois explores the teacher and principal pipeline in Illinois to understand where it is working well, where it can be strengthened and how the pandemic affected everything from educator recruitment and attendance to retention and vacancies.

First, some good news. The mass exodus of teachers from the profession that many predicted has not come to pass. Instead, our state has significantly increased its educator workforce since 2018, adding more than 5,800 teaching positions, a much greater rate than other states. That said, Illinois posts a 2.6% teacher vacancy rate. Worse, this overall average hides disparities by region — urban and rural areas are more likely to face vacancies; by position type — vacancy rates in special education and bilingual stand at 5% and 3.9%, respectively; and most tragically, by student population — with Black and Latino students and students from low-income households dramatically more likely to be in districts with vacancy rates more than twice the state average.

These staffing disparities are unacceptable under any circumstance. When we consider the disparate impact that COVID-19 has had on exactly the student populations most likely to be in schools affected by shortages, it is a crisis. When the Illinois State Board of Education released its annual Illinois Report Card this fall, it celebrated the fact that students are making progress in recovering from the academic impacts of disrupted learning. While students are not yet back to pre-pandemic levels of proficiency in English or math, they are beginning to rebound. As importantly, four-year high school graduation rates and freshman-on-track rates remained steady or grew and actually exceed pre-pandemic levels.

Despite this progress, math and English scores for Black and Latino students and students from low-income households, in grades 3 to 8, continued to lag behind their white and more affluent peers. While four-year high school graduation rates remained steady last year at an 87.6% average, disparities persist: Black students graduating at an 80.1% rate and Latino students at 85.5%. SAT scores also remain low, with notable differences between racial groups.

These disparities are less surprising when we consider that students of color and students from low-income households are more likely to be enrolled in districts with steeper teacher vacancies and that are more deeply under-resourced.

So what do we do? We have a few tools at our disposal. The first and most powerful solution we have is investment in the evidence-based funding formula. Since its passage, this formula has directed nearly $2 billion in new state dollars to the districts furthest from the adequate level of funding needed to ensure their students have access to a quality education. This has increased districts’ capacity to invest in everything from badly needed staffing — new teachers, counselors, reading specialists and more — to enrichment and support programs. These funds have been a lifeline for underfunded districts over the past six years and likely help explain why Illinois weathered the pandemic better academically than many other states. Put simply, investment in evidence-based funding is one of the most effective ways we have to get districts the resources they need to respond to the ongoing challenges they face in the wake of COVID-19 and as federal funds disappear.

The second tool we have is the targeted and sensible initiatives the state put in place over the past five years to grow and diversify the teacher pipeline. These include grant programs that cover tuition costs for educators pursuing bilingual education credentials, invest in the retention of special education teachers, recruit and train new administrators generally and of color, expand scholarships for candidates of color and provide mentoring and induction for new teachers and administrators. ISBE is commendably directing smart solutions to areas of greatest need. These initiatives and others play a critical role in how well all Illinois’ students recover and excel, but with the expiration of federal relief funds, the state’s continued investment is in jeopardy. It is imperative we not let that happen.

We applaud the steps ISBE and districts are taking to accelerate student recovery and do so equitably, but this work will falter without significant investment by our governor and the legislature. Targeted and meaningful investments from our state, for our students, for our teachers and for our schools are urgently needed to respond to the realities that are before us now and the ones we know lay ahead.

Robin Steans is president of Advance Illinois, an independent, bipartisan policy and advocacy organization.

The W. Clement & Jessie V. Stone Foundation awarded approximately $5 million in grants in 2023. Please visit our Grants Awarded section for detailed descriptions.

The research is extensive and clear: Quality early childhood programs can strengthen Illinois’ current and future workforce, bolster crime prevention, and enhance national security. Such programs range from high-quality child care and preschool to key birth-to-3 initiatives, such as home-visiting services of “coaching” help for new and expecting parents. Unfortunately, Illinois’ early childhood system falls shy of meeting the needs of children, families, and communities, with resulting consequences for our state’s economy and public safety, not to mention our country’s most basic security.

Early Childhood Educators Set Illinois Kids on the Path to Success, a new report from Council for a Strong America-Illinois focuses on one vital aspect of efforts to improve this picture. It notes that the most fundamental features of solid early learning programs include “highly-qualified staff who are well-trained both before and during their service and who are adequately supported and compensated.” Yet in Illinois, child care teachers earn an average of only $28,730 per year and preK teachers about $35,840, compared with $65,790 for kindergarten educators. In birth-to-3 programs, the disparities are even more bleak.

Better compensation, support, and training are central to stabilizing the early childhood field and building-out a stronger system of birth-to-5 services, according to this report released by leaders from business, law enforcement, and the military. Program quality, access, and equity depend upon boosting this hardworking “workforce behind our entire workforce.”

Fortunately, as Gov. Pritzker and state leaders call for expanding early childhood services, informed by the recommendations of a bipartisan commission, there are successes on which Illinois can build further. These include pandemic-era Strengthen & Grow grants to help child care centers and homes strengthen staff recruitment, retention, and compensation increases — an effort that Illinois should extend. Similarly, the Early Childhood Access Consortium for Equity Scholarship Program is a relatively new but significant collaboration between two- and four-year higher education institutions to grow the credentials of early care and learning professionals.

These and similar measures will be necessary to more concretely reflect the value of our early childhood workforce, placing its teachers and staff in a better position to put children, and our state, on the path to success.

In an effort to better support Black educators across the nation, Foundation grantee National Center on Teacher Residencies (NCTR) recently released its report, “Doing Better for Black Educators: Six Policy Recommendations for Improving the Recruitment and Preparation of Black Educators.” The report, which includes practical policy recommendations and promising practices towards diversifying the national teacher workforce, builds on research NCTR has been developing in partnership with the Columbia University Center for Public Research and Leadership through an evaluation of its Black Educator Initiative, an effort designed to recruit, prepare, and retain 750 new Black teachers through NCTR’s national Network of teacher residency programs.

Foundation grantee, the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, recently published the Early Educator Engagement and Empowerment Toolkit which aims to support early educators in their advocacy, power building, and stakeholder engagement. It features the latest facts and policy solutions about the ECE workforce that educators can use to build arguments for change, from the local to the national level.

In 2019, the National Center on Teacher Residencies (NCTR), a Foundation grantee, launched the Black Educator Initiative, an effort designed to recruit, prepare, and retain new Black teachers through NCTR’s national network of teacher residency programs. A Foundation supported evaluation of this effort led to the development of a report titled “Recruitment and Retention of Black Educators: Promising Strategies at eight U.S. teacher residencies”. The report highlights the successes of the Black Educator Initiative in recruiting and retaining Black educators and identifies promising practices for diversifying the national teacher workforce.