For most, the report that a nonpartisan think tank released in June confirmed what they already knew: New Jersey is facing a dire teacher shortage – and unless the education community acts, there will continue to be a lack of qualified educators to teach the state’s children.

The analysis published by New Jersey Policy Perspective, titled “New Jersey’s Teacher Pipeline: The Decline in Teacher Candidates Continues,” cited data from the U.S. Department of Education that reveals that seven years ago, almost five people completed teacher preparation programs for every 1,000 students in New Jersey. Today, however, barely two students in 1,000 complete such a program. 

The report added that on top of that, New Jersey’s colleges and universities produce fewer teachers per 1,000 students than the rest of the nation. As a result, the state is relying too heavily on out-of-state teacher preparation programs.

Luis M. Rojas Jr., assistant superintendent of human resources/labor relations and affirmative action at Paterson School District in Passaic County, a pre-K-12 district that is the third largest in the state, cannot recall a time when his district needed so many qualified teachers.

Serving about 25,000 students and employing 2,100 teachers, the district recently had about 200 teaching vacancies. “We are trying to look under every single rock,” he said. “The short of it is the demand is way higher than the supply.”

In Rojas’s opinion, one of the main hurdles is that salaries have not kept up with the pace of inflation, and the health and pension benefits that go along with being a teacher have gone down over time. “At least the benefits used to offset the salary,” he said, noting higher insurance premiums and the need for today’s teachers to work longer to earn a full pension.

“If you come in earning $60,000 and are paying student loans and things of that nature and you are having to supply your own household with funds, it becomes a tall hill to climb,” he said.

The need for qualified teachers in Paterson “is about four times as bad as I can ever recall it,” he said, observing how much the landscape has changed since the onset of COVID-19. The need for special education teachers and bilingual teachers is particularly high, he said.

To help meet demand, the district has been flexible with salary offers, rarely starting out a new hire at step one, Rojas said. “We don’t just take a pompous attitude and provide a candidate with a salary based on what we believe is a cookie-cutter placement guide,” he said.

The starting salary in Paterson, he said, is around $58,000, but Rojas has no qualms about offering the right candidate with the right experience more. “It depends on the vacancy itself and how much of a need we have to fill the position,” he said. “The guide is nice, but realistically, very seldom is anyone starting in Paterson at step one.” 

For instance, if you are a chemistry teacher – even if you just graduated from college – there may be a school district that will hire you at step 10 since there is so much demand, Rojas said. “Are we going to squabble over $10,000?” he asked. “At the end of the day, the education of 30 students is more important than $10,000.” The alternative, he noted, is having someone who isn’t certified in that subject area teaching students or relying on a substitute – and neither are good options.

Heather Peske, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a research and policy group based in Washington, D.C. working to ensure that every child has an effective teacher, thinks taking a strategic approach to salaries makes sense. 

“Most teacher shortages are in specific subject areas or in high-need schools or regions,” she said, noting that about half of the states in America offer incentive programs for teachers including loan forgiveness – something that New Jersey currently offers through the NJCLASS Loan Redemption Program for New Jersey Teachers. State legislators are also considering additional incentive programs.

Some districts already offer incentives at the local level. For instance, an NCTQ analysis of Newark’s collective bargaining agreement from 2020 shows it can offer discretionary bonuses of up $4,000 to teachers who join the district if they teach in a critical certification area, Peske said.

As for Paterson, the district has relied heavily on a company that supplies it with per diem substitutes to fill the void until it can hire more qualified teachers, Rojas said. Sometimes, it relies on its own teachers to cover additional classes, paying them extra and “kind of doing it by committee,” he said.

Paterson also hired two full-time recruiters – a new position – in early 2022. “Their full-time job is to do nothing but recruit teachers for our district,” he said. “They’ve done a bang-up job – they are all over the place turning over every single rock, looking for candidates.”

Previously, various employees searched for candidates amid other job duties, Rojas said. “Unless it’s your full-time job, you are really doing a half effort,” he said. Since coming on, the two full-time recruiters have brought in about two-thirds of the district’s newly hired teachers, Rojas said.

As to why fewer people are entering the teaching profession, Rojas said he’d be the first to admit that it’s not easy being a teacher. “It is a tough profession nowadays,” he said. Another contributing factor, he speculated, is that a K-8 certification once allowed a teacher to teach a variety of subjects.  In 2005, the NJDOE replaced the single K-8 endorsement with two separate endorsements: an elementary endorsement and an endorsement for subject matter specalization in middle grades.

“Once you make it content specific, you reduce the workforce,” he said. “We are kind of seeing those changes manifesting themselves 15 to 20 years later,” he said, noting that staff with K-8 umbrella certifications are retiring – and the mandate to be certified in a specific subject area exacerbates the shortage.

The COVID-19 pandemic has complicated matters, Rojas said. “Since COVID, folks have realized how important family and time are,” he said. “They used to drive an hour or two hours to work … and some staff are moving closer to home.”

Peske, however, noted that so far, there is no evidence of a mass exodus of teachers as a result of the pandemic. She added that most states do not publish comprehensive data on the teacher shortage, which needs to change. “Only by improving our labor market information in terms of quality and transparency can we really align the supply of teachers with the demand,” she said. (Gov. Phil Murphy recently signed P.L. 2021, C394, which requires the compilation and reporting of such data, which you can read more about later in this article.)

Despite hiring difficulties, Rojas had only great things to say about Paterson’s Board of Education. “My personnel committee is awesome,” he said. “We have candid conversations, and we bounce ideas off each other,” he said. “They are very supportive: We go back and forth, and we do what is best for Paterson.”

There is no place he’d rather be than in Paterson, Rojas said. “For whatever reason, we sometimes get a bad rap,” he said. “But honestly, I have been here close to 17 years, and there is really no other place I would want to work. The folks here are dedicated, they love what they do, and they love education.”

The View from Higher Education Colleges and universities throughout New Jersey also are experiencing the impact of fewer people being interested in teaching.

Dr. Nora E. Hyland, associate dean and faculty director of teacher education at the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, said that over the past four years, about 20% fewer students have enrolled in its program. Looking over the past decade, that decrease goes up to about 25%, she said. Some other colleges and universities have seen more significant drops, she said. 

One of the reasons for the decline in candidates across the state, Hyland theorized, is that they must pass so many tests, including a basic skills test,  the Praxis II test focusing on a subject area as well as the edTPA test. 

Prospective teachers must also have earned a bachelor’s degree from a regionally accredited college or university, and as of Sept. 1, 2016, graduates must have earned a grade point average of 3.0 or higher (with some flexiblity for candidates who earn a certain score on the applicable subject matter assessment). A five-year pilot program in New Jersey allows prospective teachers to earn limited certification if they don’t meet that minimum GPA requirement or achieve a passing score on the appropriate state test of subject matter knowledge. Districts that want to hire such teachers, however, must apply to the program.

While Peske does not believe the nationwide trend of lowering admissions or licensure requirements is helpful for aspiring teachers or for students, the pilot program in New Jersey is “a solid approach,” she said. She applauded the fact that districts must apply to be part of the program and that they must disclose how they will provide additional support to teachers with a more limited certification. 

The edTPA requirement has been particularly problematic, Hyland said. “When the state layered on the edTPA assessment, which is a performance-based assessment, it required students to teach a series of videotaped lessons,” she explained. It’s an expensive, time-consuming process, she said.

“It’s not a test per se but an assessment,” she said. “You can retake portions of it. The feedback from scorers on what they did not like is not always great.”

Rutgers is a member of the New Jersey Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, which has advocated for eliminating the edTPA, Hyland said. “I want to be clear: I am not opposed to ensuring teachers are well prepared and that they have the best skills for the profession,” she said. “However, I think if we are going to burden people with expensive and cumbersome assessments, we need to be absolutely certain that those assessments are of the highest quality and measure what we think they measure – and if we don’t, we should not be using those assessments.”

The edTPA, she believes, does not predict whether someone will be a good teacher – and it’s simply not necessary. “I think we need to trust our educator preparation programs,” she said. “When we recommend a candidate for certification, they have gone through a state-approved program and for us, it is a nationally accredited program. So, in some ways, layering on assessments like edTPA, even if they were valid and reliable, would be redundant because for us, to be accredited, we must meet standards. There has to be that level of trust.”

In theory, the edTPA should be a really good way for aspiring teachers to demonstrate their skills with a portfolio of evidence, Peske said. “But in practice, performance assessments take a lot of time” – and they can also prevent student teachers from getting the most they can out of the experience, she said. “There is mixed research about the predictive reliability … which is concerning,” she said.

Looking at the big picture, however, Peske does not believe efforts to boost the supply of teachers should focus on removing barriers to entering the profession. “This rhetoric of getting warm bodies into the classroom is insulting,” she said, noting that teachers are experts in their fields, take specialized coursework and are professionally licensed. 

“I am deeply concerned at the notion of lowering standards to entry as the way to ensure that we have teachers who are qualified and effective for students,” she said. “Simply put, it is not.” She noted that while there is a shortage of airline pilots, no one is talking about lowering those standards – nor the standards to become a nurse. “Yet we describe lowering barriers to the teaching profession as though anyone could teach or as if it is a profession that does not require knowledge and skills,” she said.

That approach, she said, lowers the status of the profession and would likely result in unqualified teachers working in poor districts – the districts that need qualified teachers the most, she said.

NCTQ studies have found that when prospective elementary school teachers fail a content test, almost a quarter walk away from the profession, never trying to pass a second time. The number is even higher for aspiring teachers of color, she said. “This is an area where the teacher preparation institutions and K-12 systems need to do a better job at preparing their candidates to have the content knowledge to take and pass licensure exams,” she said.

More needs to be done to keep existing candidates engaged with the profession, so they don’t walk away and pursue some other career – especially students of color, she said. 

“Diversity in the teacher workforce is one of the most important education issues of our time,” she said. Research continues to show that a diverse teacher workforce benefits all students, she said.

Drilling into the Decline At least part of the decline in enrollment in teacher preparation programs can be attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic, Hyland said, but she also points to financial and testing barriers. 

Moreover, teachers have had even more thrown on their plate in recent years – and not all of it appeals to those starting or changing their career, she said.

“We know that in the last several years, the politics of education and teaching and the discourse around teachers has been troubling,” she said. “It doesn’t make it sound like the noble profession it is.” 

Debates about COVID-19 policies and curriculum, as well as violence in schools, may cause people to second guess entering the profession, she said. “Certainly, we have even had students that were really concerned about the student teaching experience during the height of the pandemic,” she said.

According to Hyland, another drawback is that some districts aren’t offering enough money to attract candidates. “There is a lot of inflation at the moment, and teaching salaries have not kept pace,” she said. “And in the state of New Jersey, the salary differential from one district to the next can be dramatic.”

Dr. Suzanne McCotter, dean of the School of Education at The College of New Jersey, notes that last year and the year before – education majors at TCNJ were down 10% each year. This year, enrollment has inched back up but not to pre-pandemic levels.

“It is in some of the high-demand areas where we are suffering the most,” she said. “We are really struggling in the STEM areas. We are a microcosm of what everyone else is seeing.”

Sometimes, there are barriers to certification, she said. For instance, people who are deaf often want to teach the deaf and hard of hearing. “But if you are deaf, written language is not your primary language, and passing a basic skills test can be an obstacle. So, we are not able to certify everyone that comes into our program,” she said.

It can cost someone about $1,500 to pay for all the tests and assessments that prelude certification, she said. “I am constantly raising money, asking for donations from alumni to offer small scholarships to get them over the finish line,” she said. 

That’s on top of the considerable expense of buying a professional wardrobe to engage in student teaching, she added. “We do a Dress for Success event every year, collecting professional clothing for students,” she said.

The salary gap between teaching and other professions prevents more from entering the profession, McCotter said. “Our best and brightest are told by people who love them and society in general that they are better than being a teacher – they could be a doctor or engineer. Why would they want to go into teaching? Part of it is salary, and part of it is perception.”

With that said, some progress is being made. For instance, Newark recently announced that it would start teachers off at a $62,000 salary. That’s great – but not every district can do that, she said.

School shootings – and all the discourse that revolves around that – does not help matters, McCotter said.

“We are not going to get good teachers in the field if we talk about them like they are a militia,” she said. “We need to talk about what is great about teaching … and not about teachers being armed guards for students.”

One way to ease the shortage would be to remove the basic skills requirement, McCotter said. “It seems to me that if you are graduating from college with a 3.0, that is sufficient in saying you can read, write and do mathematics sufficiently,” she said. Like Hyland, she also thinks the edTPA should be eliminated.

Earlier this year, the New Jersey School Boards Association was one of nine organizations that sent a letter to the Legislature and State Board of Education urging them to eliminate the edTPA as a requirement for securing a license.

In testimony before the Senate Education Committee in March, NJSBA pointed out that the removal of the edTPA assessment from the requirements for teacher certification would not decrease teacher accountability because of the protocols in the TEACHNJ act and novice teacher supports available in local districts. It noted it supports bill S-896, which would remove the requirement, stating, “New Jersey has a teacher shortage that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. It is important that the Legislature make every effort to increase the supply of qualified teaching candidates. Part of that effort must include the removal of barriers to entry into the profession. The edTPA assessment may be one of those barriers.”

While the state Assembly and Senate unanimously passed a bill eliminating the ed-TPA as a certification requirement, as of Sept. 14, 2022,  the governor had not yet acted on the legislation, leaving many prospective teachers wondering whether or not they would have to complete the assessment.

The good thing is that for students who graduate from a teaching program, it’s easier than ever to find a job – and not just any job – they can have their pick of jobs, McCotter said. 

“Definitely for the past year and a half, I have had education supervisors and superintendents calling or emailing me weekly saying ‘Who do you have graduating?’” McCotter said. “We graduate about six physics teachers per year, and we are among the national leaders in physics teachers. Now, they are looking for elementary teachers, and that was never the case before. I’ve had superintendents contact me asking me to send them a list of everyone we are graduating in a given semester – or asking if they can send a bus to do a career fair.”

Thomas A. Parmalee is the managing editor of School Leader magazine.