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.