October 6, 2022

Classrooms and Buses

Spectator
By Stephen Tuttle | Sept. 3, 2022

According to a recent article in The Washington Post, we are facing a “catastrophic” teacher shortage. They report that some schools in Texas are going to a four-day school week, some in Florida are hiring veterans with no teaching training or experience, and some in Arizona are using college students as classroom teachers.

If true, all or any of that will make for a very troublesome school year.

The problem here is that evidence is mostly anecdotal because neither the federal government nor the states keep adequate records. What information does exist is often scant or contradictory.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 386,000 teaching positions open as of February, 2022, compared to just 108,000 openings a decade ago. Unfortunately, their definition of “teaching positions” includes most support staff jobs.

Here in Michigan, according to our Department of Education, there were a bit more than 10,000 students enrolled in teacher preparation programs at colleges and universities in 2019 compared to nearly 15,000 enrolled in similar programs in 2015. But a lot has transpired between 2019 and now, making that data almost unusable.

Adding to the confusion is a report from the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) that says there are now 2 percent more public school teachers than two years ago but 9 percent fewer students, as so many have not returned to the classroom since the pandemic lockdowns.

Teacher attrition in local school districts is being reported as nearly normal, not exceptional. There are, however, some areas that are clearly in need of help.

The DOE compiles what is referred to as a critical shortage area list, various specific disciplines in which there are shortages in the teaching pipeline. In Michigan, that list includes physical education, art, music, elementary education, language arts, and social studies—to name a few of the 26 disciplines they list. (Who knew there were 26 different courses/disciplines in which there could be shortages?)

Most prominent among the shortages are special education instructors, and that really is a problem; students who most need focused and consistent help have the fewest people being trained to provide that help. We need to provide whatever incentives are available to encourage more students to create a career path that leads to a special ed destination.

What does seem incontrovertible is the degree of difficulty for teaching has increased exponentially in recent years. External politics now too often invade the classroom via politicized school boards. Parent involvement has too often become parent interference and hostility. Classroom discipline has suffered as school districts shy away from teacher support in order to satisfy increasingly vocal parents and parent groups who believe their precious children never break any rules.

On top of all that is a constant increase in mandates issued by various legislatures as to what can and cannot be taught and what can and cannot be read. The American Association of School Librarians reports book-banning demands by parents and outside groups have increased dramatically in just the last three years. Books involving race or the LGBTQ+ community are those most commonly targeted for exclusion.

A bigger, and already existing, public school shortage involves school bus drivers. It is an incredibly difficult job with peculiar hours but is absolutely critical for the safe transport of our children. According to a National Education Association (NEA) survey, a whopping 80 percent of public schools said they already have a bus driver shortage or are on the verge. Teacher shortages will be significantly less important if we can’t get students to school.

(Locally, TCAPS Superintendent Dr. John VanWagoner has recently cross-trained as a bus driver in case he’s needed. As laudable as this is, VanWagoner’s time might be better spent elsewhere.)

Speaking of school buses, those big yellow vehicles will be on the road again this week, and it’s time for the rest of us to be aware of and follow the law regarding our interaction with them.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which keeps track of such things, documented 54 fatalities involving school bus accidents in 2020, the last year data is available. Since 2011, 70 percent of fatalities in accidents involving school buses occurred in vehicles which struck the bus, usually from behind. But 16 percent of those fatalities were pedestrians, and the bulk of them were school children struck down because some driver was not paying attention or just ignored the laws.

The law is simple: When a school bus is stopped, with red lights flashing, vehicles following behind or approaching from the front MUST STOP. Failure to stop may result in large fines and auto insurance hikes. Striking a child will likely result in prison. Red flashing lights mean stop, so just stop.

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