CHARLESTON -- State legislation sponsored by local state Sen. Dale Righter, R-Mattoon, is an attempt to address one piece of the puzzle that affects the teacher shortage facing Illinois schools: the bar candidates must clear to obtain a teacher's license.
The legislation aims to offer another option for students on a track to becoming teachers outside of getting certain scores on the state’s standardized testing.
Current state statute requires that students seeking a career in teaching score at least 22 on their ACT test or 1,110 on their SAT test, or pass the Basic Skills/ Test of Academic Proficiency in order to finish their educational program and receive their teaching license.
The legislation would add another option, not related to standardized testing, but overall grades. It would allow students to move forward in the education program with a minimum grade point average of 3.0 on a 4.0 scale in the core education curriculum classes at the universities they attend.
“Superintendents and principals I speak with in my district tell me often they are having a hard time filling teaching positions,” Righter said. “Teaching applications are down tremendously. My legislation will help every school district, especially those in rural areas because it gives our students more flexibility in obtaining their teaching licenses.”
The proposed change seems to show "potential" for addressing a smaller number of teaching candidates in recent years, Charleston school district Assistant Superintendent Todd Vilardo said.
"The current law may have had a limiting effect," he said. "We've seen a limited pool of teaching candidates as opposed to what we've seen in past years."
However, Charleston has been able to find qualified candidates for teaching positions, Vilardo noted.
The current requirements have stopped more than a few students from moving forward on their path to becoming a teacher, said Douglas Bower, College of Education and Professional Studies associate dean at Eastern Illinois University.
Casey-Westfield school district Superintendent Dee Scott said only approximately 50 percent of students pass the Illinois teacher certification test, which makes paying for four years of teacher education seem like a risky investment for them. She said Illinois' burdensome certification requirements have caused many prospective teachers to leave this field or seek employment in Indiana where certification is easier.
For the Mattoon district, there has been a noticeable dip in applicants in the past few years, said Dave Skocy, assistant superintendent for human resources. Skocy said normally, the school would receive approximately 3,400 applicants for multiple positions. Skocy said the district does not see anywhere close to that number now.
Skocy said the district has been seeing declines in applicants for English, special education, math and science, predominantly. Skocy said it is particularly challenging filling secondary education positions.
Skocy noted the dip is not alarming at this point, though. He said the district is in a large enough area to not face as many struggles as more rural districts.
Scott said she has found there is a shortage of teacher job applicants in every subject area that the Casey-Westfield district has needed to hire for in recent years. For example, she said the district recently received three applicants for a physical education teacher position, whereas they would have received more than 50 applicants in past years.
Scott said she worries that Casey-Westfield and other districts will need to start hiring teacher applicants who only meet the minimal education requirements and have little training. She said lawmakers in Springfield, as a whole, have not acknowledged this issue, so she is glad to see Righter pursuing legislation to address the rural teacher shortage.
Beyond addressing the teacher shortage, locals in education see the current system to measure a student’s competence as a flawed one.
Bower said the reliance on standardized testing to judge these students' teaching abilities is inaccurate. Grades as a measure are just as valid if not more than standardized testing, he said.
“This would not lower standards at all,” Bower said of Righter's proposal.
Barbara Meyer, associate dean in the college of education at Illinois State University in Normal, said teaching candidates have “many benchmarks to meet” on the road to a career.
“Scoring well on the ACT or SAT is one of many hoops to jump through. It is difficult. Students have to meet that score in order to progress into teacher education courses and that’s a challenge sometimes,” said Meyer.
She said teachers, like anyone else, have challenges when taking tests.
Stephen Lucas, Secondary Education department chair at EIU, said it is hard seeing students “who you know would be good teachers” stopped because they scored a point or two lower than the requirements as they stand now, which happens all too often.
He noted the university instructs these future teachers that a student can demonstrate they have learned in different ways. He said it only seems fitting that the proposed legislation follows that philosophy when identifying the competence of students in education.
This would only be a solution for one aspect of the teacher shortage, though. Skocy said the problem is systemic with the view people have on a career in education now, and the security that comes with pursuing a career in this field.
“Public education has a bad rap right now,” Skocy said, citing external forces like the state budget impasse as contributing factors.
Still, Skocy applauded the potential for another option for the pool of qualified teachers.
According to a press release, Righter hopes action is taken on this legislation, Senate Bill 1123, when lawmakers return to Springfield on Tuesday.