Kentucky along with many other states faces a shortage of public school teachers. The Kentucky Office of Education Accountability reports that at least 28,000 educators have left the classroom in the past decade. At the beginning of the current academic year, schools had nearly 3,000 open teaching positions, according to the state Department of Education.
The University of Kentucky wants to help reverse the shortage through innovative marketing and recruitment efforts and by attracting more people of color into the profession.
“What I would love for the University of Kentucky to be able to do is double the number of teachers that we’re making each year,” says UK College of Education Dean Julian Vasquez Heilig.
Most new teachers in Kentucky will remain in the classroom for the long-term, says Heilig. But he says in some states, about half will leave the profession after a few years.
Luring More People to Teaching
It’s difficult to attract young people to the work in the first place because they’ve seen the challenges that teachers faced in their own classrooms. Economics is also a factor: Heilig says teachers tend to earn less than other professionals with a college degree.
One way that UK is reaching out to prospective student-teachers, especially those born since the 1980s, is with a Snapchat video series that follows new teachers during their first year in the classroom.
“Our reality show about new educators is about that inspiration that you get working with families, working in communities, working with children, and seeing them grow and prosper,” says Heilig. “That’s how we’re working to grab that passion of Generation Z, of the millennials, is going where they are and using social and new media to tell the story of educators.”
Heilig also wants to enroll more Latinos and other students of color at the UK College of Education. Although the number of teachers of color has doubled nationally in the past decade, Heilig says about 95 percent of the state’s teachers are white. But a quarter of students in the commonwealth are children of color, according to Heilig. He says a diverse teaching corps has a positive impact on academic performance.
“Students of color that have teachers of color have higher student achievement, they’re less likely to be disciplined in school, they’re more likely to go to higher education,” says the dean. “White students who have teachers of color typically score higher in critical thinking and creativity.”
In addition to attracting more diversity to the profession, Heilig wants to help schools fill critical gaps in teachers for certain subject areas.
“The shortage is not the same for all positions across the field,” he says. “You might get 300 applications for a social studies position but only three for physics.”
Heilig also wants to ensure that the teachers UK produces not only have a thorough knowledge of their content specialty, but also have the pedagogic skills to effectively convey that knowledge and successfully manage their classrooms.
An Academic View of Charter Schools
To address struggling public schools and persistent achievement gaps among certain groups of students, more than 40 states have opened publicly funded, privately managed charter schools. The Kentucky General Assembly passed enabling legislation for charter schools in 2017 but has yet to approve any funding for the schools.
Heilig says the number of charter schools in the U.S. has doubled in the last decade. He contends the school choice option presents a critical challenge for many states that, like Kentucky, struggle to adequately fund public education.
“What we just have to decide as a society is what kind of education system we want,” says Heilig. “Do we want a privately managed education system, or do we want a democratically controlled education system? Do we want a system that’s more segregated than the one that we have now? Do we want a system that performs about the same statistically as the one that we have now? Those are the kind of questions that we have to ask.”
Heilig says peer-reviewed academic studies including his research on charter schools reveal that charters perform essentially the same as traditional public schools. But he says that doesn’t mean there aren’t viable options for improving academic performance.
“There are a lot of gold standards already in the research literature that we know move the needle a 1,000 percent more than charter schools,” he says. “We know that high-quality [pre-kindergarten] does that, we know smaller class sizes for our kids do that… So I think it’s important for us to get that information out into to the public discourse.”
Heilig says some charter schools do embrace diversity and cultural competency, but he adds that many fail to properly serve minority students and communities. In his own study, Does the African American Need Separate Charter Schools?, published in the University of Minnesota Law School’s “Law and Inequality: A Journal of Theory and Practice,” Heilig and his co-authors argue that many education reform advocates have a “near-fatal misunderstanding of the systemic issues that result in consistent and persistent inequitable outcomes for black students.”
Instead of reducing racial barriers and improving academic outcomes for minority students, Heilig argues that charter schools end up sabotaging public school districts that are predominantly comprised of students of color. That problem gets worse, he says, as African American education policymakers are replaced with white charter school board members.
“Those most directly affected by education reform policies and processes, experience great difficulty in obtaining inclusion into the education policy process that is privately managed,” Heilig writes. “Market-based policies that fail to include the perspectives of local stakeholders produce lower academic outcomes as compared to education reform policies that receive local support.”
The College of Education under Heilig, who was appointed dean last summer, is creating a new initiative to make this kind of academic research on the intersection of education, social justice, and civil rights available to the public in easily accessible and digestible forms.
“It’s really important that we as academics are engaged in the important conversations in the public discourse,” says Heilig. “There’s a lot of think tanks that will turn out research on any particular side of an issue... What we want to do is we want to take that peer-reviewed research, that gold-standard work that’s produced under very high standards, and make it more readily available in the public discourse.”
Look Beyond School Ratings
But what about schools with poor accountability ratings?
“When we talk about low-performing, who sets those metrics, and why did they set them where they set them?” the dean asks.
As an example, Heilig points to Lexington’s Frederick Douglass High School, which received two stars under the state’s new five-star rating system. He says that rating doesn’t tell a parent everything they should know about the school, which he describes as a beautiful facility filled with engaged children.
“If I was a high school student, I would want to go to Frederick Douglass,” says Heilig. “So it’s important for us to think about how is it that we can we insert passion into the student’s lives so that they can go on and realize their opportunities.”
As state officials put increasing emphasis on preparing students to work in today’s job market, Heilig says academic achievement and workforce development are both important for students.
“Career and college readiness, I don’t think they’re necessarily competing,” says the dean. “We just need to offer every student the opportunity to take the pathway that gives them passion.”