Missouri has a teacher shortage, but it can’t compromise in evaluating new candidates

·4 min read

The Missouri State Board of Education has changed the way it is evaluating elementary and secondary teacher candidates. The agency had to find ways to add qualified educators to a shrinking pool in the midst of a national teacher shortage that’s threatening to leave a whole lot of classrooms without teachers.

The shortage jeopardizes the education of public school children, many of whom are already falling behind after shutdowns because of COVID-19 and less-effective online learning.

So we support state efforts trying to minimize any further damage to students’ education. At the same time, we don’t want to see the state handing out teacher licenses to people unprepared to give students a quality education. That only adds to the problems our school children face.

State officials deny that’s happening. The changes, they said, make scoring for teacher licensure exams less rigid, but do nothing to make candidates’ coursework any less rigorous, nor the test questions any less challenging.

Here’s what they say has happened.

After noticing a drop in the pass rate on new elementary teacher licensure exams, the state did not change the passing score for those tests. But in April, the state decided to apply a standard error of measurement for determining whether a candidate is qualified to teach specific subjects — math and science, English and history.

So a candidate might miss a handful of questions and land within a range below the cut score, but still be recommended for a license. This month, the state made a similar allowance for secondary school teachers.

“A few missed questions does not make a teacher any less effective as an educator,” said Mallory McGowin, spokeswoman for the state board. That doesn’t sound unreasonable.

With this move, the state is essentially saying that on any given day, with all other factors the same, if that same teacher were to take the same exam, he or she would likely hit or surpass the pass score cutoff.

Jason Roberts, president of the Kansas City Federation of Teachers and School-Related Personnel, says he is “not opposed” to the state’s new scoring method.

“We say all the time that we should not judge a student by one test score. Maybe we should say the same thing about teachers,” he said. “Those tests are hard and disproportionately affect Black and brown candidates because of the way they might be written.”

The state also acknowledges that a teacher candidate might answer a missed question correctly if it were worded differently.

“We are not saying it is OK to dumb down the education workforce,” McGowin said. “We are trying to assure that highly qualified teachers are not going untapped.”

The new scoring could add roughly 500 teachers to the state’s licensed teacher pool.

School district officials across the state are worried about how they will fill a potentially large but still unknown number of teacher vacancies.

Since 2020, teachers and administrators have left schools in droves, driven out by stresses during the pandemic and attacks by conservative lawmakers and parents over COVID-19 mandates, curriculum and library books.

Those same pressures, plus low pay and a lack of respect for the profession, have deterred many from choosing education for a career. It’s understandable that fewer are choosing to do so.

If the state board doesn’t find a way to hire more teachers, then schools are left to fill classrooms with anyone they can.

“Our schools cannot do what every other shop or restaurant has been doing — run short-staffed or just close,” McGowin said.

Last year, when even substitute teachers were scarce, some districts were willing to hire people as substitutes as long as they had a high school diploma.

Wouldn’t a parent prefer to have a licensed teacher who graduated with an education degree but missed a few questions on a final exam in front of their child’s class?

The new way of measuring teaching assessments is going to give Missouri districts a significantly greater number of teachers to choose from this fall. But the new system still won’t solve the teacher shortage.

And it doesn’t deal with the underlying problems that have driven so many good teachers from their chosen profession.

Teachers who have put their own health at risk during the pandemic, who’ve been asked to help with student mental health issues, who pivoted quickly to teach online with little training, and who now are being asked to carry guns to defend students, deserve more professional respect and better pay.

That would go a long way toward slowing the exodus. State educators also should look at changes such as easing retirement restrictions, or allowing retired teachers to return to work as long-term substitutes without losing their retirement status.

Education officials must get innovative in this critical time and look at new ways to get more teachers into our classrooms without diminishing the quality of education for Missouri students.