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In teacher shortage, Alabama looks to South Korea

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

A group of Alabama education leaders and lawmakers will go to South Korea next month to explore the possibility of bringing Korean math and science teachers to classrooms here.

State Superintendent Eric Mackey will be on the late October trip and said the state is interested in a possible program with the Korean government where teachers from that country come to Alabama, finish their master’s degrees and teach for a specified number of years. Mackey and others said South Korea has a surplus of teachers. 

“We do think it could lead to more teachers here, especially in math and, secondarily, science,” Mackey told Alabama Daily News.

New data released from the Alabama State Department of Education last week showed a continuing decline in first-year teachers coming out of Alabama’s public and private educator prep programs from 2016-2017 to 2017-2018.

“We know we’re going to have to do some things long term,” Mackey said about the teacher shortage. “This could be a short-term solution for some parts of the state.” 

There are a variety of details still to be worked out, including obtaining visas for the potential teachers and who would pay for the cost of bringing them to Alabama.

State Sens. Tim Melson, R-Florence, and Donnie Chesteen, R-Geneva, plan to go on the trip. They’re chairman and vice-chairman of the Senate Education Policy Committee.

“We’re looking at all options,” Melson said about the need for more teachers. “It’d be nice to produce them in Alabama, but we’re looking at all possibilities.”

Chesteen in the 2019 legislative session sponsored a bill to offer more generous retirement benefits than what’s been available to new teachers in Alabama since 2013. That bill died on the final day of the session and Chesteen said he’ll try again next year.

Alabama wants to continue to grow its own teachers, he said. But highly qualified teachers from South Korea are an opportunity too.

“I don’t think it would do anything but strengthen our education system,” Chesteen said.

This year, lawmakers extended from one to four years the amount of time a non-certified educator can teach in Alabama classrooms.

In the 2017-2018 school year, there were more than 1,700 teachers in grades seven through 12 who were not certified to teach the English, math, social studies, science or special education classes they were assigned.

Last week, Mackey said that getting public schools’ student-teacher ratio to his desired level would require hiring about 1,869 new teachers statewide.

The upcoming trip is being organized by the Alabama-Korea Education and Economic Partnership, a Montgomery based nonprofit established in 2011. Mackey is the current board chairman. Former state Sen. Gerald Dial is one of A-KEEP’s co-founders.

“We’re just trying to reach out and fill that void,” Dial said about the teacher shortage.

The October trip is the second this year for Alabama education experts. In June, a higher education delegation went.

Robin McGill, director of instruction at the Alabama Commission on Higher Education, said A-KEEP has been a sort of matchmaker in recognizing the teacher surplus in Korea and the need in Alabama. More science, technology, engineering and math teachers are critical to the state’s ability to attract business, McGill said.

In 2018, the state approved a program to help repay up to $5,000 a year in federal student loans for certified math and science teachers who teach in critical shortage areas.

‘Not bottomed out’

In 2017-2018, 2,321 new teachers with bachelor’s degrees from Alabama’s public and private education schools took the state’s required licensure tests, according to a recent ALSDE report. That’s down by 131 from the previous year. 

“The two biggest takeaways are, one, it shows that there is a lower number of people in the colleges of education,” Mackey said recently. The report breaks down test scores by the 26 public and private colleges of education.

“Math is the second area of concern in the report.

“We still lag behind in math, so if you look at the first time passing scores, math is where we are the lowest,” Mackey said.

Mackey said many of the math courses future teachers take are outside the colleges of education.

“They’re taught in other colleges — math, science, business — so what can we do to partner with them to make sure our teachers are well prepared to pass those tests on the first attempt,” he said.

Jim Purcell, executive director of the Alabama Commission on Higher Education, said the report helps colleges of education better prepare students for the state licensing exams.

“From a state perspective we did see some decline in the number of college graduates sitting for the licensing exams,” Purcell told Alabama Daily News. “Statewide there was a decline in test takers for the test in elementary education, English, math, science and special education.”

Pass rates for first-time test takes remained steady from the previous year, except in math.

“Alabama already has a shortage of math teachers and it is my hope the universities will prioritize efforts in getting more teachers to successfully pass the math assessment,” Purcell said.

Peter Hlebowitsh is the dean of the University of Alabama’s College of Education. He said universities are upping their recruitment efforts of potential teachers by stressing the job security and a schedule that allows for time with family and other interests.  He said some changes, including better retirement benefits and mentoring programs for young teachers, would help.

He said there’s also an argument to be made for pay increases for teachers in the most in-demand fields, like math and science.

“It’s kind of a supply and demand issue,” Hlebowitsh said.

Something has to be done to make teaching more attractive, he said.

“The evidence is that we have not bottomed out in terms of the number of program completers coming out of the teacher programs in Alabama,” he said.

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