Teacher shortages, assessment anxiety, spur SRU to action


teacher and students

Feb. 1, 2016

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - In Pennsylvania and across much of the nation, school districts are struggling to find full-time teachers and substitutes, especially in grades 7-12 special education, foreign languages, math and science. The shortage may indicate a looming trend of teacher shortages in other disciplines, said Keith Dils, Slippery Rock University dean of the College of Education.

One of the contributing factors, Dils said, is that fewer people are seeking teacher certification. Pennsylvania has experienced a 62 percent drop in residents' seeking teacher certification - from 16,361 in 2013 to 6,215 in 2015.

Dils said Pennsylvania Department of Education newly required assessment tests in algebra, geometry, reading and writing content that undergraduates must take before they can advance to upper-level specialization courses may be contributing to the decline. More than 50 percent of the test takers statewide have failed the math portion of the test.

SRU has responded to the situation by making test preparation available to undergraduates facing the Department of Education required Pre-Service Academic Performance test or the Praxis Core Academic Skills for Educator test. Undergraduates must pass one of the tests (or post a minimum SAT or ACT score) before they accrue 60 credits toward their degree in order to take upper division courses.

Students are exempt if they earn a 1550 SAT in math, reading and writing, he said.

"Our test preparation is designed to put our students in the best possible position to pass the PAPA or CORE math exam," Dils said. "This is especially important for our teacher candidates in areas such as foreign language, special education and other disciplines that do not have a focus on algebra and geometry content."

Dils said undergraduates should not procrastinate on prepping for the exams. SRU begins talking to education majors and their parents about the exams during freshman orientation.

"Our test preparation also encourages our candidates to take practice tests under timed conditions, something we have correlated with success on the exams," he said. "We also encourage our students to take the exam prior to their freshman year, because it is closer to the time they would have taken these courses in high school and because it affords them plenty of opportunities to take the exam numerous times before the 60-credit deadline, another thing that is correlated with success on the exams."

Dils said in the recent past fewer people were interested in going into teaching for several reasons, including the required testing and the perception that there is still difficulty in finding a full-time teaching job because of budget cuts.

"There has been some demonizing of teachers in the press in the past as well," Dils said. "Testing has been used to attempt to simplify problems and, unfortunately at times, the test results have been used to place blame unfairly. However, the pendulum is swinging back to the idea that testing is but one of many potential indicators of educational achievement. The use of standardized exam results to assess teachers is also easing back and getting more reasonable. The job market and support for teachers are both on the rise."

The need for substitute teachers is especially pronounced. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 73 percent of school districts nationwide have an "urgent" need for substitute teachers. More than 5 million students nationwide in 274,000 classrooms have a substitute teacher on any given day. The U.S. Department of Education said up to 10 percent of teachers are absent on any given day.

The dearth prompted Tracy Vitale, superintendent of the Seneca Valley School District in suburban Pittsburgh, to make a plea for substitutes at a recent school board meeting. Vitale said Seneca Valley is so desperate for substitutes, the district would take anyone who is certified as a teacher, for one, two or five days a week.

More than 50 people approached the district about a sub position, said Linda Andreassi, Seneca Valley communications director.

School districts typically turn to subs when a teacher calls in sick, has a meeting, is in training or can't be in the classroom for some other reason.

SRU, founded as a teacher-education normal school in 1889, attempts to provide a source of substitute teachers by connecting seniors with school district during job fairs, Dils said. Although often not a recent graduate's first choice, working as a substitute can often lead to full-time teaching position in the area.

SRU is enrolling more education majors. The college posted a 20 percent increase in enrollment last year. Dils said many graduates are tempted to secure teaching jobs outside the area, including Harrisburg and Philadelphia in state, and North Carolina and Nevada, out of state.

"I get calls on a monthly basis from people saying, 'Send us your graduates,'" Dils said.

The college is also working to prepare graduates to teach in Vietnam, China and other Far East countries, Dils said, because those countries want the language influence of Americans on their young people.

"I've traveled abroad, and they all say they want teachers who speak American-style English, "Dils said. "We have an international teaching track that can prepare students to teach abroad. What a powerful way for a graduate to get an intense year of experience with diverse students and then to return home prepared to interview for a job teaching our increasingly diverse American students."

Jessica Parker, an SRU graduate student in the reading specialist with instructional coaching/literacy program, said the state exams can potentially hold students back or deter them from entering the field all together.

"These assessments are not only time consuming to prepare and study for, but intimidating for students who realize that their education and future may be put on hold because of the types of assessments that are required," she said. "This puts significant pressure on the students who are not only focusing on their coursework, but also having to prepare for an assessment."

Many school districts and other potential employers ask to see a candidate's tests scores as part of the application for employment process.

"This puts even more pressure on students knowing that the assessments are substantial for continuing through your education situation, but can also limit your future job offers," Parker said. "I have gone through the stress, struggles and determination of passing the assessments."

Parker said she passed her exams on the first try and aspires to a full-time teaching position in Pennsylvania.

"Slippery Rock University helped me pass assessments by providing helpful practice tests, study materials and quality professors who embedded the assessment content into their coursework," she said.

"Even though I recognize I could acquire a teaching position very easily in other states, I also recognize that I would be leaving my family who is important to me, a location that I love and high quality school districts with high quality teachers," she said. "Therefore it gives me even more motivation to teach in a school district around my area and strive for excellence in any position offered to me."

Christina Paul, an early childhood education from Gibsonia, said she chose SRU for her higher education because she loves the campus and had heard how the College of Education adjusts its programs to meet the needs of school districts and their children.

"I can even attest to the fact that the faculty in the Slippery Rock University education program have excellent reputations with many possessing a plethora of information based on decades of experience in the field," she said.

Paul said her class was the first one to experience a change in the basic-skills testing procedure. She was exempted because of her high SAT scores.

Like others, Paul said education majors should take one of the high-stakes exams their freshmen year, because most of the basic content knowledge is taught in high school.

"Knowing what is at stake is an enormous amount of pressure and the longer students wait the worse they tend to do, especially on the math section," she said, adding that she is grateful SRU faculty provide resources such as free workshops and practice exams.

"I love attending SRU because you really are a name here, and the University looks at your whole self, not just your numbers," she said. "The reality of this competitive field, though, is that future employers may ask to see these numbers."

Paul said she hopes to become a school counselor and will sub if necessary to find her way to a full-time position in one of the school districts surrounding her home area.

"I know Slippery Rock University will shape me into a great candidate to interview for these positions, and I can only hope for the best with my test scores," she said.

MEDIA CONTACT: Gordon Ovenshine | 724.738.4854 | gordon.ovenshine@sru.edu