Over the past 12 months, I have heard more discussion about how to improve schools across South Carolina than at any other time since I moved here in 1999. This conversation is exciting and desperately needed, but after so many years of giving minimal attention to education, the volume of proposals for reform being discussed in the legislature and across the state are overwhelming and, to some extent, making it difficult to reach consensus on next steps. Our state seems to agree that something needs to be done, but the challenge now is determining what to do.

This determination isn’t easy given the multitude of issues to address in our schools, and in order to determine what should happen first, I find it best to use an analogy. Much like our schools, I currently have a long list of things I would like to improve about my house. But, like our state, I have finite resources to make improvements, so I have to prioritize. I currently have an ordered list of things I would like to do, but I also know I would discard that list in a moment if I went home and found my house was on fire. I wouldn’t pull in the driveway and think, “Today is the day I fix the door handle that sticks.” I would jump out of the car and do everything I could to put out the fire because, in that moment, none of the other repairs would matter if I couldn’t put out the fire.

When it comes to our schools, the house is on fire – and the fire is the ever growing teacher shortage crisis across South Carolina. The data about our teacher shortage is staggering. According to the Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention and Advancement (CERRA), 5,300 teachers left South Carolina schools at the end of the 2017-2018 school year and did not return. This continued a five-year trend of growing teacher turnover in our schools, and the problem is amplified by a decline over the same period in the available supply of individuals completing a teacher education program in our state. As a result, our state opened the 2018-2019 school year with 621 vacant teaching positions. Assuming a student-teacher ratio of 20:1 (which is far lower than what is found in most of our state’s classrooms), that means more than 12,000 South Carolina students started the school year without a certified teacher in their classrooms. While it’s too early to have data for teacher turnover at the end of the 2018-2019 school year, any quick scan of current job postings by our state’s school districts shows that the problem is getting worse.

The stakes of this teacher shortage crisis could not be higher for our students and for the future of our state. Research by a wide range of groups has consistently shown that the most important school-related factor for student achievement is the quality of the teacher in the classroom. As a result, it stands to reason that a student in a classroom without a qualified teacher is being deprived of the single best resource our state can provide for their education. Beyond the negative impact of unfilled teaching vacancies, research shows that high turnover rates are harmful for student learning even when a qualified replacement can be found. A 2016 study out of Vanderbilt showed that students lose the equivalent of 32 to 72 days of instruction when teachers leave during the school year. And a 10-year study of more than one million students in New York City found that grade levels with high teacher turnover score lower in ELA and math and that, by reducing teacher turnover, student achievement increased in math by 2 to 3% of a standard deviation.

Given the picture painted by this type of research, finding a way to slow teacher turnover in our state has to be at the top of any meaningful effort for educational reform. Last year, the General Assembly addressed a wide range of reform topics, from district consolidation, to changes to standardized testing, to increasing school-to-workforce alignment. All of these topics are worthy of our time and attention, but none of them will realize their full potential unless our state can find a way to ensure that every student has consistent access to high quality certified teachers in every classroom.

The General Assembly took one important step in that direction last year by increasing teacher pay. I know this action is important because, from 2016-2018, I worked for the U.S. Department of Education, and during that time, I had the chance to talk with thousands of teachers and pre-service teachers across the nation. In those conversations, I always tried to address the issue of teacher supply. Without fail, teachers from all grade levels and all states identified four key factors that could reduce teacher turnover and recruit more individuals to the profession:

  • Improved Compensation: This was rarely the first thing mentioned, but it was always unanimous that increased compensation and improved benefits were key factors.
  • Time: I’ve written in the past about the increased time pressures teachers face today. Simply put, the expectations and requirements for great teaching have changed, but the basic structure of the work day has not.
  • Respect: Numerous teachers shared stories of feeling that they were constantly having to defend their judgments and status as professionals in the face of ever growing challenges from within and outside the education system.
  • Greater systems of support: Teachers expressed feelings ranging from isolation to micromanagement, but repeatedly, they noted the inadequacy of systems of support, including everything from a lack of available resources to insufficient opportunities for professional growth and learning.

There are some promising practices that are making a difference in addressing those topics. For example, our district is seeing great returns from the enhanced support many of our newest teachers are experiencing through CarolinaTIP. Our district has also worked to provide more opportunities for professional learning experiences that are teacher-driven and collaborative in nature, such as the Powered by Teach to Lead Summit we hosted in June. 

However, these steps alone won’t sufficiently address the depth of the teacher shortage. Issues like time and respect are unquestionably challenging, but the level of the challenge shouldn’t cause us to lose sight of the importance of the task. This is why the work of SC-TEACHER is such an exciting development as it seeks to pull together stakeholders from across the state to look more deeply at issues of teacher recruitment and retention. It is also why it is absolutely essential that policymakers continue to seek and facilitate direct and ongoing input and involvement of teachers in any discussion about educational reform. By talking to and working with teachers, policymakers can learn from the true experts on what works in a classroom while also demonstrating respect for teachers as professionals.

The house may be on fire in South Carolina education, but fortunately, in our teachers, our state has resources to put out the flames. Our collective job is to ensure that we are providing these professionals with the resources and support they need to do their jobs and keep them in the classroom.