As teacher shortage grows, a virtually ideal substitute

Something's missing: But the national teacher shortage doesn't have to spell doom for rural and disadvantaged school districts, thanks to "virtual classroom" technology.
By HARRY AURORA //

It’s no secret the teacher shortage facing school districts across the county is a legitimate crisis.

A widely distributed 2019 study by the Economic Policy Institute called the teacher shortage “large and growing,” and analysts point to two key issues: Public schools are hiring fewer teachers and fewer people are pursuing teaching careers, a perfect storm for a public-education epidemic.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 60,000 fewer public education jobs than there were before the start of the 2007 recession. This translates into a nationwide 307,000-job shortfall in public education, if you include the number of jobs that should have been created since then.

And fewer people are enrolling in teacher-training programs – a problem compounded further by a high rate of attrition within the teaching profession, higher than in other professional sectors.

According to the Learning Policy Institute, an estimated 300,000 new teachers will be needed – per year – by 2020, and by 2025 that number will increase to 316,000 annually.

Naturally, this shortage puts public schools in lower socioeconomic communities and rural regions at a particular disadvantage.

Harry Aurora: The poor get poorer in a teacher shortage.

The simple fact of the matter is the pool of qualified candidates for districts in these areas is significantly smaller. As in many industries, young, dynamic candidates often find themselves drawn to glamorous cities or affluent suburbs, and in places like this, it’s easier for a school district to endure a national teacher shortage. For less-fortunate school districts, a hiring shortage can have drastic consequences.

Evidence suggests that online teaching and learning platforms can provide an effective solution for understaffed school districts, particularly those in rural areas. Aligning vetted educators to teach students virtually all over the country for synchronous and blended learning shows great promise as a hiring-crisis fix – and online educational instruction can be swiftly and effectively implemented.

All students, regardless of where they live, deserve access to high-quality teachers. By embracing virtual, personalized instruction through the use of existing, widespread technologies, rural and lower-socioeconomic school districts can start to close the learning gap with more affluent districts across the county.

The Florence School District in South Carolina is a great example of a district that took steps to solve this vexing challenge. In the lead-up to the 2018-2019 school year, the district had numerous unfilled teacher positions – and was forced to start the school year with substitutes of varying levels of experience in key positions.

They especially needed an 11th grade intermediate algebra/geometry teacher, a middle school English teacher and a middle school pre-algebra teacher, with none readily available. So, the district implemented whole-class virtual instruction – through the iTutor virtual classroom – and created a plan that put experienced teachers, certified in the needed instructional areas, in front of students in a virtual learning environment.

Through online instruction, students were able to receive a full, qualified education despite a statewide teacher shortage. The district cited academic results, including learning gains in the tough math classes, equivalent to results achieved by traditional on-site teachers.

Students in Florence were able to learn from their virtual teachers in a positive and productive way, throughout the school year – a great example of how virtual instruction can address the national teacher shortage.

Harry Aurora is the founder and CEO of Jericho-based digital-education innovator iTutor.