The Teacher Shortage and Virtual Education
ODESSA, TEXAS – September 18, 2018
The US has seen an increased demand for teachers in recent years. In some states, there is especially a great need for teachers who can teach special education, science, and math, in others, schools are not finding enough qualified language teachers.
Student numbers have risen, even as many school systems seek to reduce the overall number of students per teacher. Shortages have largely been blamed on low pay rates for US teachers. The issue has caused some to leave for better paying professions, while fewer people are choosing to become teachers. In Texas as an oil boom has caused the cost of housing to soar in the area while simultaneously luring teachers away to high-paying energy jobs, the Ector County school board has struggled to recruit and retain enough teachers.
An entry-level teacher in the district receives a $47,500 salary.
With district-wide enrollment at an all-time high — Ector County added 1100 students this fall — schools have also been suffering from overcrowding.
Faced with a drastic shortage of teachers, one West Texas school district may join a small but growing group of Texas communities settling for hiring some only available via screens.
The Ector County school board, which oversees Odessa and its western suburbs, will consider a proposal Tuesday to contract with “virtual teachers” through an Austin-based company, Proximity Learning, in order to fill some of its 240 vacant teaching positions.
“We’ll look at any opportunity to fill those vacancies, and this is potentially a way to have certified teachers in front of our kids every day,” said Michael Adkins, a spokesperson for the district.
About two dozen other school districts use virtual teachers through Proximity. Under a current proposal, Ector County would pay nearly $1 million in order for teachers to offer live lessons projected onto classroom screens or transmitted to individual devices for a wider variety of courses including astronomy, Algebra 2 and English 4.
For Ector’s interim superintendent, Jim Nelson, virtual teachers may be the solution for recruiting and retaining enough teachers in expensive or rural parts of the state.
“PLI’s instruction model simulates the experience of a traditional brick-and-mortar classroom setting,” said Proximity CEO Evan Erdberg.” The classroom is equipped with tools such as a microphone, webcam and chat, so students can engage and interact with teachers throughout instruction.”
Adkins, the district’s spokesperson, said virtual teachers may be especially useful for courses like American Sign Language, which is offered in two high schools as a foreign language. There is no ASL-certified teacher on staff in Ector County this year, and dozens of students need to take ASL 2 to complete their language requirement.
For one year-long course, a virtual teacher would cost $59,400, according to the proposal. The school would also need to hire aides to oversee each classroom in person and pass around a microphone for students to ask questions. Aides would receive $17,363 annually.
Nelson, the interim superintendent, said the virtual teachers are an optional measure for schools in Ector County. The district oversees 12 middle and high schools, including the one that inspired the book, movie and TV show “Friday Night Lights.”
And as the average rental cost in the county shot up almost 40 percent in a year, Adkins said, the district has even secured 48 units of rent-controlled housing for its teachers. But it’s still not enough, he said.
The shortage of teachers is not a problem exclusive to Texas. Many US states are facing teacher shortages heading into the 2018-2019 school year. A study by the Learning Policy Institute found about 80% of school districts across the state reported a shortage of qualified teachers during the 2017-2018 school year. The biggest shortages come from rural areas and large cities.
Nevertheless it is difficult to speak about a nationwide teacher shortage because each state and school district is so different. The causes of the teacher shortage can be very different so the solutions should be different too. Distance learning may be an area-specific solution, but it cannot be considered a one-stop solution for all States.