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As Illinois tackles teacher shortage, research points to loan forgiveness

LA Johnson | NPR

Like many states, Illinois is facing a teacher shortage.

The Illinois State Board of Education estimates more than 2,000 positions remained vacant during the 2016-17 school year, including teaching, administrative and support staff.

Earlier this month, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner signed into law a slew of legislation intended to alleviate the state’s teacher shortage. But some teachers and union leaders doubt the measures are enough.

The nonprofit Learning Policy Institute is a nonpartisan group that has studied teacher shortages across the country. Illinois Newsroom’s Lee Gaines spoke with president and CEO Linda Darling-Hammond to find out which legislative fixes actually work.

Linda Darling-Hammond: Teacher shortages can be solved very quickly, and we've had that experience. I’ve watched states put in place a package of reforms that eliminated shortages within three years and put those states into a surplus situation. But you have to actually be purposeful and focused, if you're going to make a difference in what is, right now, a slippery slope toward more and more people coming in without the training that they need, creating a high turnover situation that, at the end of the day, undermines both teachers and students.

Lee Gaines: I'm curious whether or not you've seen any states where they've been able to turn it around, and what they've done to do that.

Linda Darling-Hammond: Yeah, there are some states that are really beginning to turn around the teacher shortage, and a number of them are raising teachers’ salaries. We've seen big salary increases in Washington State, in South Dakota and other states. A large number of states are putting in place service scholarships or forgivable loans for people to train to become teachers. The debt load to become a teacher is pretty extensive. If you can get rid of people’s debt, it's actually like raising the salary, and if you say to people, ‘If you will teach, we’ll pay for your education,’ and tie that to service in the places where teachers are needed, it turns out you can really make a big dent in the teacher shortage that way. I would say there are about 20 states that have put those kinds of programs in place.

Lee Gaines: One thing that I picked up on from the folks that I’ve talked to, they feel as though the profession just isn't as respected as it once was.

Linda Darling-Hammond: I think there is a real concern about the respect given to the teaching profession. We've been through a decade where, kind of politically, there was a lot of teacher bashing, as more and more childhood poverty, homelessness, lack of health care, food insecurity has grown, and the context of teaching have become more challenging. Teachers have often been blamed for the failure of the society to support children and to support schools, generally. We've had large budget cuts for schools, and rather than really investing in children and schools, we've had a period of time where many politicians have blamed teachers for all of the ills of society.

Lee Gaines: What would be the advice that you would give to lawmakers and community leaders in Illinois who expressed concern about reversing our current shortage?

Linda Darling-Hammond: The first thing I would say is communicate the value of teachers and make good on that communication by saying, ‘If you will teach — particularly in our high-needs subjects and our high-need locations — we will pay for your education, and you'll pay us back with service in teaching.’ I guarantee you that a well-funded program like that will make a very big dent in shortages in a very short period of time. In addition, to keep people, you need to gradually raise salaries and equalize them so that people are earning close to what other college graduates are making. You've got to be sure that they're getting good coaching and then given opportunities to continue to learn and to get better at what they do. Because that will bring them the reward of children who are learning and the satisfaction that they came into the profession for in the first place.

Illinois Newsroom is a regional journalism collaboration focused on expanding coverage of education, state politics, health and the environment. The collaborative includes Illinois Public Media in Urbana, NPR Illinois in Springfield, WSIU in Carbondale, WVIK in the Quad Cities, Tri States Public Radio in Macomb and Harvest Public Media. Funding comes from the stations and a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.