Commentary: When it comes to educating a child, nearly everything is contingent on the quality of the teacher in the classroom. Teachers make a difference when it comes to the academic performance of students.
As much as we talk about teachers, we do not really look at the tremendous human capital challenges and opportunities, right in front of us---until there is a problem. Right now, there is an enormous problem.
The challenge is in finding educators willing to teach or remain in the field of public education. To keep it simple two paths are necessary: recruitment and retention. Retention is one of the most significant issues, and we must continue to focus efforts in that area. We have some ideas we will share with policymakers on that issue in the future.
When it comes to recruitment, state leaders tend to view solutions through a myopic lens. Becoming a teacher should not mean unnecessary work, institutional barriers, or bureaucratic constraints. The system must be simple to understand and navigate, from potential teachers through retirement. Also, it is worth noting Colleges of Education are also facing another issue: shifting American attitudes toward college. According to the Hechinger Report, the overall number of college students declined by 2.6 million (13%) from 2010-2020.
We have looked at the Teacher Pipeline and the Grow Your Own Program. These are two solutions that help in addressing the dire need. We must also consider a New Teacher Corps program here in Tennessee. We should provide college loan forgiveness for an agreement to teach for a specific number of years. Conditions could be attached according to the specific needs of the state, or a local school district. However, these teachers must be prepared and given support to succeed in educating children.
This is not a new idea. As part of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs, The United States Congress established a program called National Teacher Corps in the Higher Education Act of 1965 to increase the number of young people who choose to teach as a profession.
The Democrat Leadership Council attempted to revive the program about 25 years ago by offering college loan forgiveness in exchange for a commitment to teaching in underperforming schools. It never really got off the ground and was absorbed by Teach for America with mixed results. It produced a revolving door of teachers who rarely stayed long enough to make a difference.
Tennessee Representative and Education Chairman Mark White, along with State Representative Mike Sparks mentioned the possibility of once again examining this method on WGNS Radio in August 2022. It is time we revisit the idea. Chairman White is well-positioned to understand our state’s need to find quality educators to provide a high-quality education for every student.
The federal government has also entered the fray with its TEACH Grant program, which has been hobbled with bureaucratic red tape and burdensome requirements. The goal is similar and assists K-12 educators in paying for their own education in exchange for teaching a high-need subject, like math or special education, for four years in a low-income community.
Both the Trump and Biden administrations have worked to deliver much-needed improvements to the program. U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said with the changes “educators receive the support to which they are entitled from this important federal program without having to jump through unnecessary hoops.” We need to tie this into the New Teaching Corps envisioned by White and Sparks, with state assistance in applying for these federal grants. Beginning with Tennessee Promise and moving toward either state or federal funding we could create a new pathway for potential educators.
Our state can only address this daunting teacher shortage if policymakers at every level of government will support our public schools and stakeholders will support and engage in the ongoing work in our classrooms and colleges of education. The New Teacher Corps would be a nice addition to go with Grow Your Own. Grow Your Own could target those who come into teaching as a second career.
We can remain highly selective in who gets into the teaching field yet allow our schools and districts the flexibility to build their training systems and work cultures unique to their settings. Paying for a college degree in return for a commitment to teaching is common sense. The public can see a tangible result from its investment.
JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee.