Illinois Has Plenty of Teachers, Just Not the Ones We Need the Most

A few years ago, I had a conversation with a young African-American man who was a high school senior in Chicago. He wanted to be a teacher in order to reach kids who wanted to learn but needed help not every teacher might be able—or willing—to give them. He knew very well what that experience was like. Though his elementary school hadn’t prepared him very well, he worked hard to improve his reading skills and took AP English. But his ACT score of 13 was still very low. Today that young man is at Indiana University, studying human resource management. So far, it looks like Illinois and Chicago won’t benefit from the perspective he could bring to a classroom. As a state, we can’t afford to lose potential teachers like him. We aren’t producing enough of them to keep up with our changing students. A new report from Bellwether Education Partners shows that while Illinois’ students are becoming more diverse, our teaching force is not. The report also illustrates the national paradox of teacher shortages. Like most of the United States, Illinois produces far more teachers than it needs. But like the rest of the country, Illinois’ teacher supply is lower in special education and bilingual education. National media are just starting to get their heads around the need to pinpoint teacher shortages by location and type. A report like this sheds light on both national needs and those specific to Illinois. For example, while special and bilingual educators appear to be in the shortest supply in Illinois, the local job market is nearly as tight for physical education teachers, because our state was the first in the nation to require daily gym class for all elementary and high school students.

Retention matters too

The report also confirms a gut sense that many principals, teachers and observers have about Chicago: It is a place where teachers come to learn the craft, only to be recruited away by other districts once they’ve put in a few years here. According to the report, many districts are hiring teachers with more than 2 years of experience teaching in Illinois, but Chicago is not among them. Less than 10 percent of new Chicago hires had more than 2 years of in-state experience, which indicates Chicago is training brand new teachers and then losing them to other, likely wealthier, districts. When you couple this information with the fact that Chicago’s test score gains have outpaced the rest of the state in recent years, you have a compelling counterargument to Gov. Bruce Rauner’s recent charge that Chicago’s public schools are “crumbling prisons.” At the same time, we know there is much more to do to ensure that every child in Chicago, Illinois and the nation learns from the teachers they deserve. One of the most pressing questions we need to answer is how to hold on to teachers for at least 5 years. The report shows that only two-thirds of new hires in Illinois are still teaching after 5 years on the job. I’m one of those people who didn’t make it to their fifth year of teaching. And I’m in complete agreement with Harvard’s Susan Moore Johnson, who studies teacher retention. Her research on what keeps teachers in high-poverty, high-achieving schools found that working conditions make the difference: a common vision among faculty and administrators, a strong, supportive principal and time to collaborate with other teachers. As we think about how to build a stronger teacher workforce, we must not only recruit teachers wisely, but build policies that retain teachers wisely, too.
Maureen Kelleher
Maureen Kelleher is Editorial Partner at Ed Post. She is a veteran education reporter, a former high school English teacher, and also the proud mom of an elementary student in Chicago Public Schools. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. Between 1998 and 2006 she was an associate editor at Catalyst Chicago, the go-to ...

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