JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Missouri students are back in the classroom for a new year, but nearly a quarter of the state’s school districts are only in session four days a week. 

The statewide shortage of teachers has districts dangling the shorter work week as a carrot to potential candidates, but the state’s education department is leery. 

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) Commissioner Margie Vandeven said the state is still feeling the strain of the teacher shortage. She said four-day weeks look different in every single district. 

“The concern that I have is that if it’s done for a teacher recruitment and retention effort if everybody starts to do that, it is no longer a teacher recruitment and retention effort,” Vandeven said. “I certainly respect our local school districts’ authority and ability to do that and they are navigating that terrain very well, but I think it is our job at the state to really take a look at that and say is this good for our students?”

In a state that is suffering a teacher staffing crisis, more than 140 schools are pivoting to four-day weeks. Legislation passed back in the early 2000s allowed schools to move to shortened school weeks following the recession to help save money on things like utilities and fuel on buses, but now it’s a perk for employment.

“How it’s evolved over time, if you talk to many schools who are looking at making that decision, it has really come down to a teacher recruitment and retention effort,” Vandeven said. “I think the legislature passed that option several years ago knowing Missouri is a local controls state and that school boards have the authority and with their input with local communities can establish a calendar to decide how they are going to meet that minimum hour requirement.”

DESE said last fall that there were more than 3,000 positions in classrooms across Missouri that were either left vacant or filled by someone not qualified. Vandeven said the department does not have those numbers yet for this school year.

“In talking with our leaders across the state, most of them are telling us they are filling positions, but I think one of the things we need to also pay attention to is not just the teacher shortage,” Vandeven said. “You’re hearing about the bus drivers, school nurses, cook, maintenance because if we don’t have all of those positions filled, that is a great strain on our teachers.”

According to researchers at the Missouri State University College of Education, 141 districts in 2022 will have four-day school weeks, an all-time high. 

“In some places, they’ve decided that day doors would be closed and in other places they use it for additional professional development or extended learning opportunities for students,” Vandeven said. “I think it really depends on what the needs of the local community are.”

As the state’s top educator, what concerns her is the parents or families that don’t have childcare or someone to watch their student on that fifth day. 

“A lot of our rural districts will say, well our families love it,” Vandeven said. “Well, if your families love it and it’s working, that might be working but what does that mean in an environment where maybe a parent doesn’t have an option to not send their child to school on a day? What does that look like?”

She said DESE does not have the research yet to look into how this is affecting the student’s learning and if the child is doing better or worse in school. Of those 141 districts that have moved to four-day weeks, most of them are in rural areas meaning less than 10% of students (72,300) in the state are affected. 

The State Board of Education created a commission to study the shortage of teachers and how to keep them in the state. The Teacher Recruitment and Retention Blue Ribbon Commission is made up of 22 members from the business communities, lawmakers, and other educators who were appointed in the spring by the Missouri Board of Education. 

In July, the governor approved nearly a quarter of a billion dollars to increase minimum teacher pay from $25,000 to $38,000. Under the legislation, the state pays for 70% while the rest is on the district, which means schools have to opt into the program. 

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. Vandeven said heading into this year, roughly 65% of districts are participating. 

Back in June, the State Board of Education voted to expand testing scores in hopes of getting 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 to expand 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.

Teachers aren’t the only ones leaving the education field. During this 2022-2023 school year, the state faced one of the largest numbers of openings for superintendents in recent history. Of the state’s 518 school districts, 104 of them spent the summer searching for superintendents. More than 53% of those openings are due to retirements from the last school year.

According to the Missouri Association of School Administrators (MASA), 56 superintendents retired this past school year, that number is up from 43 in 2021, 41 in 2020, and 36 in 2019. Compared to years past, in 2019 there were 76 superintendent openings going into the school year. By 2020, when most districts finished the school year virtually, that number increased to 86 but decreased back down to 83 in 2021. 

Of the 104 superintendent openings, all have been filled, but some with interims. 

To view the map made by Jon Turner at Missouri State University showing the districts that are implementing a four-day week for the 2022-2023 school year, click here.

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