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Teacher to legislators: I'd love to stay in the classroom if I could afford it

Scott Elliott

David Mikesell, a teacher from Portage, is worried the only way he’ll be able to secure a future for his family is to eventually move on to an administrative job to earn more money.

Mikesell was one of a handful of educators and others who stuck around for almost eight hours to tell a legislative study committee today that low pay, along with frustrations with testing and accountability, are discouraging aspiring educators from entering the profession and good teachers from staying.

“I would love to remain a teacher if I could afford it,” Mikesell said.

The committee of lawmakers has grappled with two big questions: Does Indiana have a teacher shortage? And if so, what can be done to fix it?

There haven’t been any simple answers.

The committee was expected to finish recommendations today, but after at least 15 presentations and numerous public comments, there was still little definitive data from experts about how big the problem actually is.

So far, no specific solutions that Indiana lawmakers could pursue have broad agreement.

Even the question of whether there actually is a teacher shortage in Indiana isn’t settled. Data presented to the committee from state agencies about how many students are enrolling in university teacher training programs, and whether it has fallen, wasn’t always conclusive.

For all those reasons, House education committee chairman Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, said forging final recommendations will take another meeting. The committee is expected to meet again at 1 p.m. Oct. 26 at the Statehouse.

“I don’t think any of us have all the answers,” Behning said. “I don’t think any of us have all the data we need to make logical suggestions as to what the problem is and to how we’re going to fix it.”

A variety of strategies were suggested by experts and educators to smooth teacher hiring and bolster retention.

The state could transition away from pay bonuses for high test scores back to more regular salary increases, one suggested. Creating bigger mentoring programs could better support new teachers, keeping them from getting discouraged, said another. The state could also take steps that make it easier for teachers from other states to get licensed in Indiana. Or it could pay teachers in high-demand areas, like math, science and foreign language, more money than others.

Julie Hollingsworth, a member of the Fort Wayne board of education, said the weight student ISTEP scores have on teacher evaluations, and that potential score drops this year could bring down school grades for 2015, makes it pretty clear why teachers might shy away from careers in Indiana.

“If the legislature does not suspend the use of these scores for grading schools and evaluating teachers, it will send a very clear message to teachers how little their efforts were valued,” Hollingsworth said. “Who wants to go into a profession when you are so obviously set up for failure? You cannot improve education by demeaning the people who do the work.”

Many teachers who spoke to lawmakers decried salaries that started low, and increased only moderately with the addition of master’s degrees and 10-plus years of experience. Rep. Melanie Wright, D-Yorktown, said in her school district, the top of the pay scale is about $54,000.

“I don’t know how you raise a family on that,” Wright, a 28-year teacher, said.

While there are certainly districts that have had a hard time hiring, Rep. Rhonda Rhoads, R-Corydon, said those problems aren’t necessarily new. She thinks some of the hiring problems can be explained by what those in the Baby Boom generation, now retiring, and younger teachers expect from jobs — both in terms of how long they stay, and what they expect to earn.

“This is not a new thing, there have been teacher shortages over the years,” Rhoads said. “I have a paper here from 1982 … there’s always been in and out just like this. There’s a difference between certain age groups and what they want in jobs.”

Indiana’s Legislative Services Agency sent out a survey to school superintendents last month asking about open jobs. But just 26 percent of the state’s school districts and 22 percent of charter schools responded, causing some legislators to question the validity of the survey.

“Are you concerned at all about how valid this is?” asked Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary. “I’m just trying to figure out how much credibility we should put into this.”

Of the 181 unfilled jobs reported that were still available in school districts and charter schools, 28 percent were in special education, 16.6 percent were in elementary schools and about 13 percent were in math and science.

Statewide projections based on the survey responses showed a possible 733 open jobs across the state as of the time the survey was given.

Using department of workforce development data and data from higher education about students who complete education degrees showed that across the state, demand for teachers outpaced supply significantly when it came to teaching assistants, but otherwise, the numbers were fairly close. There were some notable gaps in the supply of special education teachers in most all grades.

However, officials said that this model was not conclusive because of limited data that was available.

There’s still a separate report to legislators expected from a 49-person panel created by state Superintendent Glenda Ritz to study the issue of recruiting and retaining teachers. The panel has met throughout the past month to come up with strategies to keep more teachers coming back to teach year after year.

According to education department data, Indiana school districts brought back about 80 percent, or four out of five, of their teachers the next year in the same schools between 2012-13 and 2013-14.

Typically, presenters reaffirmed that hiring tends to be hardest for schools in isolated rural communities and high-poverty urban neighborhoods. Jobs that require more schooling or specialized skills, such as science, math and special education teaching jobs, are also harder to fill.

According to information from the Commission on Higher Education, there’s been a 37 percent decline in students completing teacher preparation programs from 2004 to 2014, but that doesn’t include teachers from alternative programs such as Teach For America or The New Teacher Project, said Teresa Lubbers, the Commissioner for Higher Education.

Lubbers said that while data is important, there’s a lot more that needs to be researched, including what could happen with the state’s pipeline of teachers who teach high school classes for college credit. Changes to education requirements for dual-credit teachers could dramatically reduce the number who are eligible to teach.

“In addition to the shortages that we think we might have by geography or subject or grade or gender, we also have a problem with dual credit,” Lubbers said. “The challenge for us is to really identify what the scope of that might be.”

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