TSD Education columnist Curtis Weathers: "The source of the teacher shortage and who is responsible is a complex issue, but the situation remains dire regardless of who or what is at fault."

Nothing about the year 2022 has been boring as far as k-12 education is concerned.

 Quite the contrary, the year has been filled with a continuous stream of drama and excitement. 

COVID continues to wreak havoc, the teacher shortage is an ever-present nemesis to school systems across America, and violence in our schools continues to rear its ugly head.

There are a few issues, however, that are of particular interest to me. Below are the top five educational issues I will be tracking as the 2023 calendar year unfolds.

No. 5: The politics in our educational system

Some people think educational institutions, especially k-12 school systems, should distance themselves as far away from politics as possible.

While that may be a wonderful dream, the truth is our educational systems are inherently political and that fact is not going to change anytime soon, especially in Memphis. 

From the governor’s office to halls of our legislature, to our local school board, politics is an ever-present participant in the day-to-day decision-making and operations of our schools. 

Politics sometimes, unfortunately, can hurt children and families. I’m hoping that 2023 will see a minimal number of disruptive politics being played with the lives and futures of our children. They deserve better.

No. 4: School funding

This year, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee and his administration made some significant changes to how our state funds public education. The governor passed his long-awaited TISA plan.

TISA stands for Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement, and it replaces Tennessee’s 30-year-old funding formula called the Basic Education Program, or BEP. 

The governor promises that this new formula “will take us to a new frontier.”  

Well, we’ll see.

Tennessee currently ranks 44th nationally in education funding with an annual investment of $5.3 billion by state government. Lee’s plan would invest an additional $1 billion more annually for students by 2024. 

But even an additional $1 billion in TISA won’t significantly alter  Tennessee’s national ranking in funding for public school education.

I’m hoping the governor finds the political will to move us out of the bottom and make some significant changes to how we pay and support our teachers in Memphis and across the state of Tennessee.

No. 3: The teacher shortage 

At the beginning of the 2022 school year, Memphis-Shelby County Schools had more than 200 unfilled teaching positions. This, of course, is not just a problem in Memphis but is mirrored across the state and the nation.

A recent survey by the American Federation of Teachers found that more than 80 percent of its k-12 members are dissatisfied with their jobs, a 34 percent increase from the start of the pandemic.

The survey also found that 40 percent of its members are thinking seriously about leaving the teaching profession for good within the next two years.

According to a recent Economic Policy Institute report, even before COVID, U.S. schools were struggling to fill open teacher positions.

For example, between 2008 and 2016, the number of people graduating with education degrees decreased by more than 15 percent.

In Tennessee, the latest report card on the state’s 43 teacher training programs found that the number of new educators graduating from college has dropped by nearly one-fifth over a five-year period.

This issue will get far worse before it gets better. 

No. 2: Academic gains or the lack thereof

Yes, Memphis Shelby County Schools is indeed “trending up” academically. But those gains are not “significant.” 

Students made gains in every grade and nearly every subject on the 2021-22 TCAP exam. 

For example, high school English scores were the strongest they’ve been in the last five years and district elementary reading and math scores improved as well. 

But that’s not enough.

Parents and Memphians in general want to see gains in performance sustained over an extended period that are “significant.”  

But such gains may be hard to achieve anytime soon given the current shake-up in leadership at the top of the organization. 

Our hope is that our schools can stay focused and build on the momentum of last year’s performance as the new leadership at the top settles in.

No. 1: Finding a new superintendent 

Last, but in no way is it the least of our challenges, the search for a new superintendent. 

Memphis-Shelby County Schools is now in need of a new leader. 

The shakeup at the top of the organization has been unsettling to say the least and will likely be an even bigger distraction once the search process gets fully underway. 

The search will be challenging, but I’m confident that we have people in greater Memphis, possibly in our own school system, who can lead the Memphis-Shelby County Schools. 

I’m hoping that those who are leading the search will manage the process well and find a person who will invest their lives into the Memphis community.

Conclusion

So, these are the top five issues I will be tracking in 2023. The year is expected to be an exciting one, and the future of our children hangs in the balance. Let’s keep our children, parents, educators, and community in our prayers. 

(Follow me, TSD’s education columnist, on Twitter @curtisweathers. Email me at [email protected].)