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Teacher shortages continue nationwide

The nation continues to weather a shortage of qualified teachers, federal data show.

Most troubling in this job market is the dearth of math, science and technology teachers, a persistent concern as the nation moves ever more to global economy requiring a stronger technical education.

Across the nation, states share shortages in similar subject areas, according to annual data culled by the U.S. Department of Education.

In the 2015-2016 school year, shortages were reported in Alaska in English/language arts, mathematics, science, social studies and special education. By contrast, in Arizona, elementary, middle and high schools had a shortage of English as a second language teachers, reflecting an influx of immigrant students now enrolled in their programs. That state, as with others, also had shortages foreign language instruction, math, reading special education, and at the high school level, classes, such as physics, economics, geography as well as physical, earth and general science.

In California, with the nation's largest student population, teacher shortages were described in February as "dire;" enrollment in teacher preparation programs there dipped to 499,800 in 2012-13 from 719,000 in 2008-09. The biggest needs in California schools, according to the education department, were in English/drama/humanities, history/social science, mathematics/computer education, science and special education.

The nation's public schools — a total of 13,515 school districts — employ about 3.1 million teachers with a 16-1 student-teacher ratio and an average annual per pupil expenditure of about $11,000. Average teacher salaries in public elementary schools are $53,760, while middle school teachers earn $54,940 and high-school educators $56,310, according to figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

While teaching is seen as a stable career by some and as a high calling by many, education schools have weathered the perception that jobs are typically low-paying and conditions are tough.

Retention is also a huge and costly issue across the nation. In 2012-2013, 7.7 percent of teachers left the profession, down from 8 percent in 2008-2009 but up from 5.6 percent in 1988-1989, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

Having a quality teacher in every class is important as the nation's educators seek to improve achievement. The most recent scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests, commonly called the Nation's Report Card, showed that 40 percent of 4th grade students were proficient in math and 36 percent in reading in 2015. In that same year, 33 percent of 8th graders were proficient in math while 34 percent scored proficient in reading.

The nation is also falling behind its international counterparts in crucial subject areas, ranking 27th in math, 17th in reading and 20th in science, according to the Program for International Student Assessment, which ranked achievement among 34 countries.

In recent years, the federal government has offered loan forgiveness or a small percentage of debt repayment options to students who agree to teacher for a number of years in a low-income or struggling school district where teacher shortages abound.

In December, Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act, which contained some non-traditional proposals aimed at helping bolster the nation's teaching ranks, including new state teacher academies, giving those who might have been interested an alternative path to certification.

Meanwhile, traditional university teacher preparation programs are also working to add to their ranks and to innovate with programs that allow different types of students a new pathway to the classroom.

At the University of Florida, Tom Dana, associate dean for academic affairs at the College of Education, says education faculty are feeling the challenges of a newly invigorated Sunshine State economy and working to respond.

"It's troubling," he said of shortages in Florida. "When the economy wasn't doing as well, things were a little better in terms of teacher shortages. We had fewer school-age children in Florida. Now, we're sort of back to the point where about 1,000 people a day move to Florida and a third of those are school-age children."

That means more schools struggling to fill the void in a state that caps class sizes, in certain subjects, by law.

"We went through this period of time when schools were being built after many were using portables for classrooms with more students than they could handle. Then, with the recession, that was not a problem," he said. "Now, we're back to the point where we need them. They are bursting at the seams — not just space but it's the teachers, too."

At Florida, prospective teachers have several pathways of study. Some enroll in a traditional degree program in education, where they take classes, and then serve in a classroom alongside a certified teacher where they are extensively mentored.

But the university also offers programs aimed at specific subject matter shortages in math, science and special education. In one, UFTeach, students earn a degree in their STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) major of interest along with a specialized education minor degree in their STEM discipline .

UF also has a special STEM Tips website where those teachers can collaborate, commiserate and share teaching strategies in science, math and technology — all designed to keep them energized and continuing in their profession.

Shortages in Florida mirror those nationally — special education, math, science, foreign language as well as new issues in English/language arts and reading.

Of the road ahead, the numbers are "shocking," Dana said, adding that "the numbers are totally insufficient to fill the needs."

In the meantime, students often are shortchanged as schools do what they can to fill the gaps.

"What happens is you have many people teaching out of field and they fill in for a section for a class. That is not ideal but it happens. A lot of times there are long-term substitutes filing in for a year, and many are simply winging it," he added. "That can't be good for students in the long run."