Jonny is a fourth-grader in a small, rural school in New Mexico. His teacher, Mr. R., lacks any form of teacher’s license. It’s common for long-term substitutes to teach for an entire year or more in this school. Jonny’s is one of the classes reported in a statewide report that shows 644 teacher vacancies.
Daniella is a third-grader. Last year, her school had three classes of second-graders with about 22 students each, but now there are only two third-grade classes, each with 31 students. Daniella’s teacher is an experienced, fully-licensed teacher, and so she is not reported in the statewide report on teacher vacancies. However, Daniella and her fellow students are receiving less individualized attention because her class is too big.
Sophia is a high school junior in a small school. Her math class has only six students, but the teacher, Ms. J., has zero prior teaching experience. Ms. J takes night classes as required by her alternative license issued by the NMPED, but Ms. J walked into her classroom with basically no professional preparation for her job.
None of the classes taught by Ms. Jones are considered “vacant” in the statewide report because she is “licensed.” Students like Sophia nonetheless suffer because the teacher shortage their teacher comes with virtually no preparation.
So just how bad is the teacher shortage? “It’s very scary,” said Susan Brown, dean of the New Mexico State University College of Education. “We just don’t have qualified people in the classroom across the state. It’s a crisis.”
New data from the PED reflects the crisis. Remember, only Jonny’s teacher shows up as a “vacancy,” though Daniella and Sophia also lack a highly qualified teacher to lead them on their learning path. Tens of thousands of our New Mexico students are not receiving an equal opportunity to succeed.
Our legislators several years ago responded to the teacher shortage with a “stop gap” measure dubbed “alternative licensure.” Adults with any college degree can become teachers without first undergoing serious professional preparation. In 2014-15 the 829 ALT teachers were four percent of the number of teachers in New Mexico. That number grew to 2,657 in 2018-19, representing 12 percent of all teachers. Districts report that more than half of all their new “teacher” hires are ALT teachers.
Every teacher, perhaps especially ALT teachers, who sincerely work hard to be the best teacher they can be for their students, deserves very high praise for striving to do so under very difficult circumstances.
Unfortunately, most New Mexico ALT teachers do not teach beyond a year or two. Of 2,726 ALT teachers in New Mexico classrooms in 2017-18, only 72 moved on to receive a “permanent” licensure with the state in 2018-2019. That is a mere 2.6 percent success rate.
That extremely alarming statistic should be no surprise. The esteemed Learning Policy Institute noted in a September 2016 report, Solving the Teacher Shortage: “Teachers with little preparation tend to leave at rates two to three times as high as those who have had a comprehensive preparation before they enter.”
In this regard, ALT does very little to ensure every student has the qualified, professionally prepared educator they deserve. Instead, New Mexico is making investments into ALT teachers who are simply leaving the state and out of our school communities.
Then there are teaching positions no longer considered “vacant,” simply because districts found no applicants. According to the PED, there has been a drop of 1,521 teaching positions (2014-15 to 2019-20). Add this to the 644 substitute-filled positions to give a new number describing the teacher shortage in New Mexico, 2,165 positions.
There are policy options that could help resolve the teacher shortage crisis – from more competitive salaries to revamping teacher pipeline programs at our higher education institutions. But our state can’t really address the problem without first acknowledging the teacher shortage is a true crisis.
(Charles Goodmacher is an independent education consultant currently working with both the NEA-New Mexico and the Transform Education New Mexico Coalition.)