Staff shortages throughout K-12 education are taking a toll
Openings are affecting student programming and services at a time we need them most
AS 2023 OPENED, the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education met on January 3 for a special meeting and had just one item listed on the agenda: “Goal setting process for accountability system and Student Opportunity Act.” In recognition of the fact that the pandemic has impacted students and communities differently, at that meeting the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education proposed a four-tiered set of targets for districts depending upon the amount of decline in student achievement data in each district as compared to pre-pandemic scores. As the board and the department consider these goals, it’s important to note the uphill battle facing our public schools as they work to support the students in their care.
The fact that this is a challenging time for public education across the nation seems to be universally recognized right now. The divisive political climate, residual effects of the global pandemic, learning loss due to lost time for services and instruction in recent years, exacerbated mental health concerns for students and staff, and a stagnant job market creating a dearth of qualified candidates for open positions in public schools all place stress upon a system that is struggling to meet the needs of all students. While all students are impacted, those students who have the greatest need are the very ones who are most profoundly feeling the impact of these intersecting forces.
Although our public schools are critically affected by all these factors, the inability of administrators to fill open positions in our schools is an underlying challenge that exacerbates all the others. Classroom teachers, school counselors, administrators, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and paraprofessionals are all impacted – and the list goes on. Each position in our school community plays a vital role, and current vacancies across all positions are impacting our ability to serve our kids with fidelity.
This shortage of candidates cuts across all areas. Business managers are impossible to find, but so too are school psychologists, social workers, guidance counselors, and science, math, and special education teachers. Districts can easily give you the number of unfilled positions in each employment category, but this does not show the full picture of either the problem or its impact. While it is easy to see how the inability to hire a classroom teacher can impact class sizes, offerings, and services, the hidden impact is perhaps even more concerning.
Staff shortages create stress, exhaustion, and burnout for those educators and staff valiantly struggling to keep things going. Teaching extra classes that are often outside their certification, larger class sizes, and trying to support students experiencing social-emotional turmoil or suffering with mental health needs all add to that load. The exhaustion these efforts create leads to increased staff absences, for which no substitutes are available, leading to coverage issues and further overload for those able to show up. It has become a vicious cycle.
Stories of building administrators forced to cover classes, clean toilets, shovel snow, or work in the cafeteria all while trying to juggle student discipline, teacher evaluation, and communications with parents are commonplace and are adding to their burden. The number of people applying for administrative positions is declining as people become less willing to step into those roles when they see how administrators and teachers are often treated by the public.
These issues are facing public schools nationwide, and Massachusetts is not unique. As the candidate pool dwindles, districts are forced to compete for new candidates and “steal” existing staff from each other, creating a constant churn of staff that does not end once the school year starts. Often in these scenarios, less affluent communities, unable to compete financially, suffer further, exacerbating the equity gaps in our state. This constant turnover of staff creates disrupted learning for students as mid-year teacher transitions interrupt the flow of learning. Individual districts and statewide organizations have each employed various strategies to improve the situation, but none have solved the issue to date.
Most concerning, however, is the fact that the situation continues to deteriorate. Educators are deeply concerned about what this situation will look like next year, and in the years to come, if action is not taken to mitigate the impact. We need to work together so that more young people want to enter the profession. We need to work together to stimulate the pipeline for desperately needed staff in hard to fill positions. We need to work together to build community supports for families because kids will continue to struggle to learn if they don’t come to us with their physical health, mental health, and societal health needs met so that they are able to access the curriculum.It’s easy to point fingers and assign blame. The narrative that schools are failing, and its underlying companion implication that it is because they just aren’t working hard enough, continues to be a part of the problem. Schools alone did not create these issues and we must stop thinking that schools alone can solve this problem. Even now groups across institutions and organizations in our state have begun that work and we must continue to work together to tackle the underlying systemic issues to ensure a brighter future for the children in our schools.
Todd Gazda is executive director the Collaborative for Educational Services in Northampton. He formerly served as superintendent of the Ludlow Public Schools.