Indiana lacks initiatives to attract potential educators, end teacher shortage

Dr. Kevin BerkopesPublished Aug. 14, 2022, on IndyStar.

Many civic and business leaders, including David Ricks, the CEO of Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly and Co., have recoiled at the news that only 37% of Indiana’s elementary and middle school students tested proficient in math on the 2019 statewide tests. With the release of the newest ILEARN assessment outcomes only showing slight improvement (2.5% for math) from when schools were completely shut down, many are left wondering where we are headed with educating our children in our communities.

While some may view this pessimism on the future of education as an attack on the Indiana Department of Education (IDOE), public schools, charter schools and private schools in Indiana, I see it differently. Schools, districts and the IDOE are not the cause of our education woes. Instead, they are victims alongside families and our children. The reason, in my opinion, is the lack of alignment of what is required to equitably meet the ethical responsibility of having high-quality educators in every classroom.

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DeMeisha Fleming (center), a first-grade teacher at James Whitcomb Riley School 43, was chosen as the elementary Teacher of the Year for Indianapolis Public Schools. She's pictured with the school's principal, Lauren Johnson (left) and IPS Superintendent Aleesia Johnson (right). Arika Herron/IndyStar

Curriculum was designed initially to curate expertise into classrooms, with the vision of streamlining quality and equity for access to learning content like mathematics. This approach, embedding expertise in curriculum sequencing, has guided the creation of mathematics texts and curricula for the last 150 years. Schools then became responsible for finding talented teachers and equipping them with the capabilities to teach a chosen curriculum (often voted on by board members or a curriculum committee). Finally, states funded the creation of schools of education to provide the baseline education for these generalists, educators who were not trained on a specific curriculum but instead grounded in cognitive science and pedagogical theories to support student learning.

The main issue today is that the incentives do not exist to attract new talent into education relative to how people live and work in 2022. For example, why would a young person competent in mathematics assume the cost of a four-year degree that provides them with no technical skill sets beyond a generalist approach to a classroom and the promise of mediocre mobility and pay?

The question is rhetorical because young people are not choosing to do this. Few schools of education do not have marketing or recruiting budgets, so if people are not choosing to enroll, they get shut down. Further, the percentage of young people choosing traditional four years degrees after high school has dropped by 20% since 2020, and schools of education are even worse. Thus, our state’s (and country’s) teacher shortage crisis. Additionally, new teachers that join the workforce rarely stay. More than 44% of new teachers leave within their first five years of teaching, and research suggests that organizational teaching conditions are the most prominent source of teacher departure.

In the past, no innovation has concentrated on collapsing curriculum and human resources into one end-to-end product in education. Many examples of other industries exist. Why wouldn’t this work in education? A school curriculum without the potential to attract talent is a ship without a crew. What good is a curriculum without teachers?

Sounds expensive? The end-to-end curriculum solution would adhere to the philosophy that eliminates as many middle layers or steps as possible, which helps optimize the education system's performance and efficiency. For mathematics, for example, a curriculum would also involve the incentive to join the education workforce by streamlining the ability to finish your bachelor’s degree, get licensed and be an expert on the specific curricular platform. I believe this innovation through efficiency would allow us to pay teachers more by optimizing the current budgets and reallocating them away from wasteful redundancy. It would also position education as a career people would be attracted to, with a mix of serving the community, scaled platform expertise and cost-effectively updating your degrees and credentials that are transferable to other industries.

Evolving curriculum to be part of the talent recruitment in education would represent a new era. A genuinely disruptive concept that does not require any change to policy or funding mechanisms for the system.

Kevin Berkopes holds a Ph.D. in mathematics from Purdue University and is the cofounder and CEO of XR Technologies.

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Paige Sjoerdsma, a seventh and eighth grade English teacher at Butler Lab School 55, was chosen as the secondary Teacher of the Year for Indianapolis Public Schools. Arika Herron/IndyStar