The most critical issue facing the new Kansas State Board of Education is not the science standards or sex education opt-in, but the dramatic teacher shortage.
While the shortfall has previously been in special education and science, schools are now seeing a shortage in math, English and other areas. Rural school districts are finding no applicants to hire.
My one biology student teacher who graduated this past December had five positions to apply for, starting January 2! My few student teachers for this spring are already being contacted by school districts before they begin practice teaching!
Science teacher production has dropped from one-half to one-third of annual production at schools across the state. In 1999 there were 235 new biology teacher endorsements; in 2004, there were 83! In the same five-year period, new licences for Kansas chemistry teachers fell from 126 to 61; physics teachers from 115 to 42 and earth science teachers from 62 to 30.
Meanwhile, the veteran teachers who have been staffing Kansas science classrooms are in the midst of retiring.
More retirees and fewer recruits mean a dramatic shortage of science teachers. Unless something changes, current science teacher production will not be enough to fill half of our science teacher positions in five years.
Such a crisis arouses a call for solutions that can be classified as bad, ineffective and good.
Bad solutions include proposals to allow current science teachers to merely test into other science endorsements and any teacher to add another endorsement with half the coursework and a test. These ““solutions”” eliminate the shortage on paper but staff our schools with untrained teachers.
Ineffective solutions call for future-teacher recruiting programs or awarding a masters degree for bachelors level teacher training, the later system equivalent to having Kansans pay premium prices for regular gasoline.
Good solutions will have to address the two major causes of a shortage of secondary teachers: poor pay and the de-professionalization of teaching.
School debt has become a major barrier to entering teaching. According to Education Week: ““more than 23 percent of students graduating from four-year public universities and 38 percent of those graduating from private colleges have too much student-loan debt to live on the average salary for a starting teacher.””
And Kansas teacher salaries have plummeted dramatically when adjusted for inflation. Data from a national survey show Kansas ranked 49th out of 50 states, averaging an 11 percent loss of teacher pay over the previous ten years before the court-mandated increase in Kansas school funding.
Substantially raising teacher salaries will help slow the decline in science teachers, but it will not be enough to put highly qualified science teachers back into every Kansas science classroom.
The main reason science teachers give for leaving the profession is also the foremost reason my young college students provide for switching out of a teaching major: teachers are no longer being treated as professionals. Teachers are now being treated as assembly-line workers, preparing students solely for tests.
Until teachers are given back their professional responsibility, the shortage of professionals in the Kansas classroom will continue to grow.
John Richard Schrock of Emporia trains biology teachers.