In this Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2019, photo, Erin Huff, a kindergarten teacher at Waverly Elementary School, works with, from left to right, Ava Turner, a 2nd grader, Benton Ryan, 1st grade, and 3rd grader Haven Green, on estimating measurements using mini marshmallows in Waverly, Ill. Credit: John O'Connor / AP

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Flynn Ross is an associate professor in teacher education at the University of Southern Maine. These views are her own as she is not authorized to represent the university or the University of Maine System.  She is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.

Last year at this time I wrote about the teacher shortage. It’s even worse this year. Two weeks ago Lewiston Schools had 200 job openings even as school was set to begin for the year. Falmouth Schools are offering $1,000 to $2,000 sign-on bonuses for ed techs and bus drivers. Beyond the shortage, there is a clear issue with equity of access to quality teachers because of each community’s ability (or inability) to pay to attract and retain teachers, and we as a state need to do better.

There are exciting new initiatives to help address the need for well prepared teachers including the Maine Teacher Residency. Supported by Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins, the nearly million-dollar Congressionally Designated Spending earmark will fund the MTR project for two years to support 40 new teachers and their mentor teachers this year and another 70 the following year. Programs such as the Educators for Maine student loan forgiveness program already exist and could be expanded to entice more students to teach in Maine. The #TeachMaine plan, released in May 2022, lays out policy initiatives that will improve access over the long term.

Some argue we don’t have a teacher shortage, rather what we have is a shortage of people willing to work in current conditions in schools for the pay that is offered. Over 15,000 applications for teacher certification and recertification are processed annually by the Maine Department of Education Certification Office for a total statewide employment of just over 15,000 teachers. While Maine does not systematically track these prospective teachers based on how they were prepared, fewer than 10 percent are reported to be applications from graduates of the teacher preparation programs at Maine colleges and universities. There are many people interested in and applying for and holding teacher certification, but they are not applying to teach in schools at this time. We need improved data to better understand the scope of the problem.

The issue is that the job positions, demands and pay have become unbearable and people are unwilling to do them, especially when they are underprepared. Maine has a 24 percent teacher weekly wage penalty, meaning that teachers are paid 24 percent less weekly than similarly educated workers in other professions. With the cost of benefits added, this drops to a 14 percent difference as health insurance and retirement benefits with union-negotiated teacher employment contracts tend to be stronger than in other professions. The Maine Legislature and Gov. Janet Mills did increase the minimum teacher salary this year in Maine to $40,000, however, this is among the lowest in New England.

To address the teacher shortage there are several “quick fix” policy initiatives that may actually be making the situation worse by increasing teacher turnover. This is especially costly for the higher-poverty and rural districts that experience turnover at a higher rate. In July 2021, the Legislature approved emergency teacher certification for people to teach who have not yet earned a bachelor’s degree. Teacher certification through transcript analysis, known as pathway 2, allows potential teachers to take a reduced number of courses that may have the correct title but little review of quality or learning outcomes.

Maine’s 277 school districts value local control in curriculum and hiring.The state teacher certification is designed to verify that certified teachers are at least minimally qualified. In this time of crisis, the minimum keeps being reduced. We know that teacher quality has the greatest “in school” impact on student achievement. To help ensure some quality in the teacher certification process, Maine could consider using a locally developed, common performance assessment for new teachers like the locally developed TCAP in New Hampshire. It will require public support politically and financially to ensure that our children’s teachers are well qualified for the demands of today’s classrooms.