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Should Veterans Fill Florida’s Teaching Shortage?

photograph of empty classroom

In late July, the Florida Department of Education announced that it would issue five-year vouchers to veterans which would allow them to work as teachers in K-12 schools without the requirements of a degree, a teaching certificate, or any experience teaching. The policy was adopted in response to two crises: a significant shortage of teachers with the beginning of the school year rapidly approaching, and a long-standing problem of failing to secure employment for veterans after they have finished their service.

The United States has an abysmal record when it comes to making sure that veterans are well cared for when they finish serving; the homelessness rate among veterans has historically been quite high. Florida has enacted initiatives to combat veteran unemployment and homelessness which have had some significant success.

The question, then, is not whether Florida should do everything they can to employ veterans and their families, but whether employing them as K-12 teachers is something that Florida can defensibly do.

The most significant concern about this policy is that it lowers the bar for what counts as quality education in the state of Florida. The role of an educator is an academic position, and it requires specialized knowledge. Not only does it require knowledge in the specific field in which the educator will teach, it also requires training in effective pedagogy. People who are trained in education are trained in methods that are the most effective in helping students to learn. They also receive training on important elements of the job such as grading, learning management systems, and responding to special challenges that students might face. The education of our young people is a significant moral responsibility; their futures are, in many ways, largely determined by the educational opportunities to which they have access early in their development. What’s more, the success of our democratic institutions relies on well-educated citizens who are strong critical thinkers and can reason well about how society should be structured.

Given the gravity of the responsibility, it is important that we put these tasks in the hands of people with the proper training. To do otherwise is to discount the value of education and to continue a nationwide trend of anti-intellectualism and de-valuing education.

One reason for the existing teacher shortage may be the way they treat their teachers; Florida ranks 49th in the nation when it comes to teacher salaries. In the 2019-2020 school year, the average teacher salary was $49,102. DeSantis recently approved $800 million to raise teacher salaries, but this will not be a significant increase per teacher. These low salaries are compensation for a job that requires substantial amounts of work off the clock; teachers spend much of their time at home grading assignments and preparing lessons.

This is taking place in a state that hasn’t exactly earned a reputation for supporting teachers. When school went virtual during the pandemic, teachers were often blamed for what some parents deemed to be the lower quality or engagement level of online education. When education moved back to the classroom (which it did very early on in Florida), teachers were accused of stunting their students’ social development by enforcing mask mandates and social distancing requirements. At the height of the pandemic, teachers were vilified while being offered very little in the way of health protections.

All of this is also taking place in an area of the country that has made national headlines for what many view to be its authoritarian nationalistic measures when it comes to controlling curriculum. As the Black Lives Matter movement motivated many educators to think about the ways in which they discuss race in the classroom, in 2021, Florida became one of the first states to ban teaching critical race theory in K-12 classrooms. Critical Race Theory is a legal theory made popular in law schools in the 1970s that examines the ways in which racism has impacted law in the United States and beyond. Needless to say, Critical Race Theory was never being taught in K-12 schools, it is advanced material.

To the extent that there is content to object to, it seems that the objection is really to education that portrays racism as a substantial, even defining aspect of the American narrative, central to our history and enduring today in a systemic form.

Politicians and pundits have stirred up considerable fear that students who are exposed to such course material will develop into self-loathing people who resent their country and are no longer patriots. Those who favor anti-critical race theory legislation argue that history lessons should portray the founders of this country as brilliant rebels who fought for and won our freedom against British rule. Dissenting voices point out that many of them were also slave owners who perpetrated a genocide against Native Americans and that we continue policies of marginalization and oppression toward these populations to this day. These are facts about our history that are far too seldom acknowledged in the K-12 classroom. Educators who feel that justice requires more in-depth discussion of our history when it comes to race feel targeted and threatened by recent legislation and political maneuvering.

In addition to legislation pertaining to race, Florida has also recently passed legislation that is referred to throughout the country as the “Don’t Say Gay Bill,” an aggressive piece of legislation with many components that impact LGBTQ children and their parents. First, the law prohibits instruction on the topic of sexual orientation or gender identity in grades K-3. More generally, it prohibits discussion of topics that are not “age or developmentally appropriate.” The vagueness in this language is viewed by many teachers as a threat to their job security. LGBTQ people exist and questions about them come up regularly in conversation, especially with young, curious people. Some teachers are members of the LGBTQ community, many of whom feel that they can’t answer basic questions about themselves because doing so might put their livelihood at risk. It is reasonable to view policies like these as an affront to their basic dignity and as a relic of an earlier time when LGBTQ people in professions were viewed as dangerous threats.

The legislation also requires transgender students to fill out a “Gender Support Plan” should they express a desire to be referred to by a preferred pronoun. This plan cannot be completed without the consent and involvement from the student’s parents. Similarly, the law requires students seeking mental health services at the school to do so only with the consent of their parents unless the school has reason to believe that notifying the parents will “subject the student to abuse, abandonment or neglect.”

The legislation in its entirety makes it fairly clear that the state of Florida does not consider lack of support for a student’s sexual orientation or gender identity to be abuse, even though such treatment increases rates of depression, anxiety, homelessness, and suicide.

Sadly, sometimes it is parental treatment which creates a need for counseling and support services. Teachers care deeply about their students, and many want to help their LGBTQ students access the services they need in order to protect their mental health and physical well-being. This law creates a chilling effect on the support teachers feel safe offering their at-risk students.

Populating classrooms with veterans compounds these issues. Veterans often exhibit high levels of patriotism and nationalism. It is common for people who do not have degrees beyond high school to be unfamiliar with sociological information about and history of groups to which they do not belong. This is not innate knowledge, after all. The United States has a fraught history when it comes to LGBTQ issues and the military, where gay soldiers were not able to openly serve until 2011 and Transgender individuals were banned from enlisting by the Trump administration (that ban was reversed by the Biden administration). Placing people who were once in the armed forces with no training in education into teaching roles seems to many as doubling down on discriminatory educational policies by placing people who may not be sympathetic to racial challenges or LGBTQ issues into the classroom. Of course, not all veterans have the same political affiliation, but hiring from this pool makes similar ideological commitments more likely.

All of this makes the classroom a very unstable environment for qualified teachers in Florida. There is little wonder that the state is not currently attracting lots of people with the proper credentials to fill the gaps. What’s more, to many, all of these moves seem politically calculated — poorly educated voters are easier to manipulate and creating “us” and “them” classes, otherizing, and fear mongering are classic tools in the playbook of demagogues. These people are quick to point out that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is viewed as virtually certain to run for President in 2024 with the hopes of appealing to the same demographic that supported former President Trump.

Essential Work, Education, and Human Values

photograph of school children with face masks having hands disinfected by teacher

On August 21st, the White House released guidance that designated teachers as “essential workers.” One of the things that this means is that teachers can return to work even if they know they’ve been exposed to the virus, provided that they remain asymptomatic. This is not the first time that the Trump administration has declared certain workers or, more accurately, certain work to be essential. Early in the pandemic, as the country experienced decline in the availability of meat, President Trump issued an executive order proclaiming that slaughterhouses were essential businesses. The result was that they did not have to comply with quarantine ordinances and could, and were expected to, remain open. Employees then had to choose between risking their health or losing their jobs. Ultimately, slaughterhouses became flash points for massive coronavirus outbreaks across the country.

As we think about the kinds of services that should be available during the pandemic, it will be useful to ask ourselves, what does it mean to say that work is essential? What does it mean to say that certain kinds of workers are essential? Are these two different ways of asking the same question or are they properly understood as distinct?

It might be helpful to walk the question back a bit. What is work? Is work, by definition, effort put forward by a person? Does it make sense to say that machines engage in work? If I rely on my calculator to do basic arithmetic because I’m unwilling to exert the effort, am I speaking loosely when I say that my calculator has “done all the work”? It matters because we want to know whether our concept of essential work is inseparable from our concept of essential workers.

One way of thinking about work is as the fulfillment of a set of tasks. If this is the case, then human workers are not, strictly speaking, necessary for work to get done; some of it can be done by machines. During a pandemic, human work comes with risk. If the completion of some tasks is essential under these conditions, we need to think about whether those tasks can be done in other ways to reduce the risk. Of course, the downside of this is that once an institution has found other ways of getting things done, there is no longer any need for human employees in those domains on the other side of the pandemic.

Another way of understanding the concept of work is that work requires intentionality and a sense of purpose. In this way, a computer does not do work when it executes code, and a plant does not do work when it participates in photosynthesis. On this understanding of the concept of work, only persons can engage in it. One virtue of understanding work in this way is that it provides some insight into the indignity of losing one’s job. A person’s work is a creative act that makes the world different from the way it was before. Every person does work, and the work that each individual does is an important part of who that person is. If this way of understanding work is correct, then work has a strong moral component and when we craft policy related to it, we are obligated to keep that in mind.

It’s also important to think about what we mean when we say that certain kinds of work are essential. The most straightforward interpretation is to say that essential work is work that we can’t live without. If this is the case, most forms of labor won’t count as essential. Neither schools nor meat are essential in this sense — we can live without both meat and education.

When people say that certain work is essential, they tend to mean something else. For some political figures, “essential” might mean “necessary for my success in the upcoming election.” Those without political aspirations often mean something different too, something like “necessary for maintaining critical human values.” Some work is important because it does something more than keep us alive; it provides the conditions under which our lives feel to us as if they are valuable and worth living.

Currently, many people are arguing for the position that society simply cannot function without opening schools. Even a brief glance at history demonstrates that this is empirically false. The system of education that we have now is comparatively young, as are our attitudes regarding the conditions under which education is appropriate. For example, for much of human history, education was viewed as inappropriate for girls and women. In the 1600’s Anna Maria van Schurman, famous child prodigy, was allowed to attend school at the University of Utrecht only on the condition that she do so behind a barrier — not to protect her from COVID-19 infested droplets, but to keep her very presence from distracting the male students. At various points in history, education was viewed as inappropriate for members of the wealthiest families — after all, as they saw it, learning to do things is for people that actually need to work. There were also segments of the population that for reasons of race or status were not allowed access to education. All of this is just to say that for most of recorded history, it hasn’t been the case that the entire population of children has been in school for seven hours a day. Our current system of K-12 education didn’t exist until the 1930s, and even then there were barriers to full participation.

That said, the fact that such a large number of children in our country have access to education certainly constitutes significant progress. Education isn’t essential in the first sense that we explored, but it is essential in the second. It is critical for the realization of important values. It contributes to human flourishing and to a sense of meaning in life. It leads to innovation and growth. It contributes to the development of art and culture. It develops well-informed citizens that are in a better position to participate in democratic institutions, providing us with the best hope of solving pressing world problems. We won’t die if we press pause for an extended period of time on formal education, but we might suffer.

Education is the kind of essential work for which essential workers are required. It is work that goes beyond simply checking off boxes on a list of tasks. It involves a strong knowledge base, but also important skills such as the ability to connect with students and to understand and react appropriately when learning isn’t occurring. These jobs can’t be done well when those doing them either aren’t safe or don’t feel safe. The primary responsibilities of these essential workers can be satisfied across a variety of presentation formats, including online formats.

In our current economy, childcare is also essential work, and there are unique skills and abilities that make for a successful childcare provider. These workers are not responsible for promoting the same societal values as educators. Instead, the focus of this work is to see to it that, for the duration of care, children are physically and psychologically safe.

If we insist that teachers are essential workers, we should avoid ambiguity. We should insist on a coherent answer to the question essential for what? If the answer is education, then teachers, as essential workers, can do their essential work in ways that keep them safe. If we are also thinking of them as caregivers, we should be straightforward about that point. The only fair thing to do once that is out in the open is to start paying them for doing more than one job.

Should Universities Abandon Placement Exams?

A photo of California State University's campus

At most universities in the United States, students are required to take placement exams to determine their developmental level in math and English.  Students are placed in classes that are appropriate for a student at that developmental level in each of those disciplines.  Students who are placed in non-college ready, remedial classes are required to take up to three such classes before they can enroll in courses that actually count toward their degree.  Last week, the Chancellor of the California State University educational system issued an executive order doing away with placement exams.  Instead, students can try their hands at classes at a higher difficulty level than the placement exam would have indicated was appropriate.  Many community colleges have already moved away from the use of placement exams, but the move to this approach in the large Cal State system is noteworthy.

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