Education reform’s next trick? Teacher shortage

What sort of gymnastics will state lawmakers try to pull off at this point to remedy a looming teacher shortage after years of running off potential young candidates by convincing Hoosiers that public schools were essentially broken?

And will they actually be willing to shoulder some of the blame?

We’re about to find out.

Recently, the leaders of the Indiana House of Representatives and Indiana Senate education committees asked House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, for a summer study into the creeping ambivalence to the teaching profession. It’s a situation that has depleted the ranks of undergrads studying education in state universities and put some districts on their heels when it comes to recruiting for open positions.

In their letter to Bosma, Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, and Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, laid out numbers that have pricked up ears in recent months. New data from the state show that “licenses issued to first-time teachers (have) declined from 16,578 in 2010 to 6,174 in 2014.”

“We think,” Behning and Kruse wrote, “it would be wise for the Indiana General Assembly to proactively address this issue.”

No kidding. Where to start?

The biting commentary came right away from teachers, who have been bristling under state-pushed reforms — the killing of collective bargaining, the rise of private school vouchers, pay raises tied in part to student performance on standardized tests and more — put into high gear in 2010.

“It’s not that hard to figure out,” said Randy Studt, a German teacher at West Lafayette High School. “We could get this problem sorted out in, I don’t know, an afternoon. … The fact that they’re just now realizing this is a problem? Come on. Look in a mirror, you guys. Listen to what you’ve been telling Indiana — and what you’ve been telling teachers, in particular.”

Maybe a decent place to start would be with a recording from the May 14 Purdue University trustees meeting. That day, College of Education Dean Maryann Santos de Barona laid out the situation on the West Lafayette campus, where undergraduate enrollment in her school is down 33 percent since 2010.

Santos de Barona talked about starting pay that forced some teachers early in their careers to pick up second jobs to make ends meet. She talked about the message sent when schools were growing reluctant to give a classroom over to a student teacher because the stakes were so high. And she talked about how each twitch by the Statehouse raised new doubts of trust and worth in classrooms.

She was clear: This was a national issue, playing out not just at Purdue or other campuses in Indiana.

Still …

“Our profession is at a critical juncture,” Santos de Barona told Purdue trustees. “The pervasive negativity about the teaching profession, and the misconception that education is broken, has resulted in increased pressures on practicing teachers.”

Purdue President Mitch Daniels, former governor during Indiana’s ramp up on school reform, didn’t have much to say about all that.

Will legislators offer something more?

In Tippecanoe County, the practical effects of a teacher shortage seem to be more distant than immediate, to hear administrators dealing with hiring and training talk about it.

They see it. But they can manage it. For now.

Scott Hanback, Tippecanoe School Corp. superintendent, said he’s confident the district is getting good, quality candidates — although the numbers of candidates for each elementary position have dropped from 90 to 30 in the past five or so years. And searches have grown wider as the pool shrinks.

“Teaching is still the best profession out there,” Hanback said. “It’s a calling. … The effects of reform, that’s starting to trickle out. So I’m all in favor of figuring out if there’s a way to turn around those numbers, so we’re not scraping the bottom of the barrel at some point.

“There’s a prevailing attitude that the legislature is trying to choke public education. I’m not sure I would write that in the newspaper, personally. But I can say that there’s that feeling out there in our school community.”

Rocky Killion, superintendent of the West Lafayette Community School Corp., said the district has two slots to fill at the high school before the school year starts.

“It’s getting tougher every year,” Killion said. “We are finding it more and more difficult to find high-quality teachers coming into the profession. Two years ago, we had close to 20 requests for student teacher placements. Last year, we had one request. … Education leaders have been predicting this since the legislative reforms of 2010.”

At Lafayette School Corp., John Layton, associate superintendent, agreed the candidate pools were getting thinner, although he believed Lafayette was shielded somewhat because it is a college community. But he took a nuanced approach about why the list of candidates was down — from the changing expectations and transiency of the millennial generation to the message educators, themselves, are passing along. He said he hashed some of that out with a university teacher education representative in the past week.

“Our conversation revolved around the fact that perhaps those of us in our own profession are sending a message to kids not to enter the profession due to education reform, accountability, etc.,” Layton said. “I mean, seriously, how else would they comprehend those things? … We need to be telling kids of the joys of being a classroom teacher. They still exist.”

The question remains, as the General Assembly starts pondering teacher shortages, whether they’re willing to embrace that same message: Teaching matters. Teachers matter. Or will they continue, through word and deed, to insist that public education is somehow broken.

Study where that message has landed us.

Dave Bangert is a writer for the (Lafayette) Journal and Courier. Send comments to