INDEPENDENCE, Mo. — Nearly a quarter of all Missouri’s school districts are only in session four days a week this year. Last night, the Independence School District just outside of Kansas City announced they would implement a shortened school week next year.
The state’s education department is expecting more districts to follow.
The law allowing a four-day week was passed to help schools save money after the recession. But the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education says shortened weeks are being used as a perk to hire and retain teachers in a state that is suffering a large shortage of educators.
“We understand that teacher recruitment and retention is in a crisis level,” DESE Chief Communications Officer Mallory McGowin said Wednesday. “But here’s the problem, when so many school districts in a particular area start to do it, it’s not really a recruitment and retention strategy anymore.”
Missouri is suffering a large shortage of educators and because of it, some schools are pivoting to four-day weeks.
“Really since that 2018-19 school year we’ve have watched them double and then double again, the number of districts,” said McGowin.
This year, more than 140 school districts have implemented a shortened week, most in rural areas, an increase of more than 100 schools in just four years.
“So that is how quickly this is taking on, and it’s being taken on when we don’t have a lot of data to support if that’s a decision made with students’ best interest,” said McGowin.
Lawmakers approved four-day weeks in the late 2000s to help schools save money during hard times.
“The idea was you could save on some transportation costs. Maybe if you weren’t in the middle on that fifth day, you could turn off air condition, turn off the heat or lower it,” said McGowin.
Now it’s being used as a carrot to potential candidates, but the state’s education department is leery.
“That toothpaste is hard to put back into that tube, and the department is committed to studying that issue, but it’s going to take some time,” said McGowin.
Four-day weeks currently affect less than 10 percent of the state’s students.
The Independence School District outside Kansas City voted Tuesday night to implement a four-day week starting next year. With nearly 1,400 students, it’s the largest district so far to make the switch.
“Is one school district in a geographic area what then happens is other districts and other boards of education are the fighting to compete and hang on to their teachers, and so I have to imagine that that is what’s happening in the Kansas City region today,” said McGowin.
Because Missouri is a local control state, districts don’t have to check with DESE before moving to a shortened week. It also means that legislators would have to vote to do away with four-day weeks.
The state’s education department says that Missouri students must participate in at least 1,044 hours of instruction during a school year. In order to hit that requirement, many districts that have moved to four-day weeks extend their school days.
DESE estimates 3,000 positions in Missouri schools are either vacant or filled by someone not qualified this school year. Back in October, the Teacher Recruitment and Retention Blue Ribbon Commission released its report to the State Board of Education.
These recommendations come after months of researching what can be done to combat the teacher shortage:
- Increasing starting teacher pay to $38,000 and having an annual review from the Joint Committee on Education to ensure teacher salaries remain competitive
- Fund the Career Ladder Program, which rewards teachers for extracurricular activities
- Establish sustainable funding for Grow Your Own programs, geared towards paraprofessionals, adults, or high school students who want to become a teacher
- Encourage districts to implement team-based teaching models
- Establish a fund to help local school districts pay for the increased minimum starting salary and to increase teacher pay overall
- Increase support for educators’ mental health
- Fully fund the scholarship program that offers tuition assistance to incoming teachers or to educators continuing their education
- Offer salary supplements for filling high-need positions
- Fund salary supplements for teachers with National Board Certification
The commission also recommends that the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) expand the annual teacher recruitment and retention report to include salary data for each local school district, teacher turnover broken down by student achievement and by race, a comparison of Missouri’s starting and average salaries with surrounding states, and openings that have been posted over the past year and the number of applications each opening received.
Missouri currently has the lowest starting teacher wage in the country, with an average of $32,970. According to the National Education Association, the national average starting wage for educators is $41,163. The commission’s report compares teachers who make less than $35,000 to other wage earners like animal caretakers who make an average of $28,000 a year, bartenders who make around $29,000, and housekeepers who average $30,000.
According to the report, about 8,000 teachers make below $38,000. Under current state law, the minimum wage for teachers is $25,000, a statute that hasn’t been changed in years. Missouri has the lowest start teacher pay in the country. The department says roughly 8,000 teachers make less than $35,000. DESE asks the General Assembly to change state law in the budget request to the governor.
In July, the governor approved nearly a quarter of a billion dollars to increase minimum teacher pay from $25,000 to $38,000 but only for one year. Under the legislation, the state pays for 70% while the rest is on the district, which means schools have to opt into the program, but the funding from the state is only for one year. DESE Deputy Commissioner Kari Monsees said about 350 schools are participating in the program.
Back in June, the State Board of Education voted to expand testing scores to get more teachers certified. By tweaking the state’s qualifying score, more than 500 teachers could be added to the workforce.
According to DESE, roughly 550 teachers miss the qualifying score on the certification exam anywhere between one to four questions. Those candidates have already completed their accredited program but didn’t score high enough on the exam.
Back in April, the board approved expanding the test scores for elementary certification exams by a -2 standard error of measurement (SEM) after a new assessment was implemented in August, and enough educators weren’t scoring high enough.
In June, the board agreed to change the qualifying score to -1 SEM starting immediately. This means someone that missing a handful of questions would be certified.