JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Nearly a quarter of all the state’s school districts are only in session four days a week this year due to a shortage of teachers. 

Over the past four months, a State Board of education commission has been studying and asking educators what should Missouri do to hire teachers and keep them on board, a big answer is pay. 

“If there’s one thing that is in your control that is going to give you the greatest sense of meeting your bottom line, wouldn’t you invest in it?,” said Margie Vandeven, commissioner for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) at the monthly State Board of Education meeting Tuesday. 

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.

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.

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. After four months of research, the commission said it has finished its work. 

“There’s some big asks in there but they are certainly appropriate asks,” said Charlie Shields, president for the Board of Education. 

Member Mary Schrag told the board she would wait until October when the full report is released to give more details, but she did say there were nine recommendations overall. 

“We had an immediate [recommendation] which included recommending an increase in starting teacher pay to at least $38,000,” Schrag said. “The second is short-term where we had recommended prioritizing teacher mental health and around tuition assistances.”

Other recommendations she said included the commission continuing their work. In August, educators were also surveyed about retention and recruitment. Schrag said that 1 in 5 teachers, more than 40% of principals and 50% of superintendents responded. 

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. It means schools have to opt into the program, but the funding from the state is only for one year. The commission’s recommendation is to keep it permanent. 

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. 

“If you look at all the external forces that are out there and take that all away, the one single thing we can do in our schools, the greatest level factor is the teacher in the classroom,” Vandeven said. 

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. 

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.

The Blue Ribbon Commission will release its full report to the State Board of Education in October. Shields said after that, the recommendations will be released to legislators and the education community, and then he hopes the commission will meet with the General Assembly sometime in January.