Meet the Expert: Dean Gerdeman
Dean Gerdeman, Ph.D., leads AIR projects that create rigorous, accessible evidence to help address challenges in education ranging from teacher training and development to disparities in student outcomes. Previously, Gerdeman was a project officer for the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education. He is a past recipient of the American Association for the Advancement of Science policy fellowship at the National Science Foundation.
POSITION: Vice President and Program Area Lead for Educators and Instruction
AREAS OF EXPERIENCE: Educator Professional Development and Learning; STEM Education; Research and Evaluation on Interventions and Innovations in Education
YEARS OF EXPERIENCE: 20
Q: How will the education landscape look different in 10 years? In what ways might it look the same?
Dean: Schools are a rock in our communities and our lives. The pandemic changed that foundation, and things probably will never go back to exactly what they used to be.
I think the teacher will remain the most important factor in a child’s education. The school leader will also continue to support adults and students in essential ways. I also believe most students will remain in traditional settings, like the school building. And, looking ahead, I think schools will continue to diversify, reflecting national demographic trends.
But I do think a lot could change. The integration of technology could reshape the educational experience of many students. Even if most of them remain in a traditional classroom, there will be new alternatives for those who want to opt out, including hybrid options. For example, before the pandemic, the Los Angeles Unified School District—the nation’s second-largest school district—already had a virtual school system. In light of the pandemic, they’ve expanded it so that many more students can opt into it.
Current students are interacting with the world differently than their predecessors. So much of their social lives take place in apps, social media, and gaming. As they become young adults and join the education field, those habits will inform their work and will infiltrate the field even more. Right now, the education system does use technology, but not in the same ways that people do in their daily lives, and I expect that to shift. One of our priorities at AIR is to focus on helping educators use and interact with technology, regardless of the platform or app that their schools or districts have chosen. There’s plenty of research on individual platforms and tools, but any given tool is less important than the extent to which teachers know how to use them and want to use them.
Q: The United States is experiencing a major shortage of school staff. When did this problem begin, and how did the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbate it?
Dean: Teacher shortages aren’t new. But historically, teacher shortages were disproportionate to certain subject areas, especially special education, science, math, and teachers certified to work with English Language Learners. There are also geographic factors: rural and urban schools tended to have more acute teacher shortages. Some of the hardest-to-staff schools are also the lowest-performing.
Current students are interacting with the world differently than their predecessors. So much of their social lives take place in apps, social media, and gaming. As they become young adults and join the education field, those habits will inform their work and will infiltrate the field even more.
The pandemic has exacerbated matters of both educator workforce and educator pipeline. By “educator workforce,” we mean the current staff of schools, including leaders; and by “educator pipeline,” we mean the training pathway that brings new professionals into the workforce. In education, the pipeline is long, with teachers needing multiple years of training. So when workforce problems arise, the pipeline needs time to catch up.
The pandemic has made the working conditions at schools much more challenging. More than other professions, educators have been on the front lines of social and political controversies like masking and vaccination. They’re also being asked to take on new challenges that they haven’t necessarily been prepared for: disrupted learning, online learning, supporting students through virtual mechanisms, and so on. There are more teachers and leaders quitting, and those problems are most exacerbated in those historically challenged areas I mentioned earlier.
Q: How have schools or school districts addressed this?
Dean: A lot of agencies and schools are in a triage mode. They can’t simply recruit, because there are matters of certification and preparation that take years to address. The triaging mostly consists of increasingly relying on long-term substitute teachers, increased pay for subs and temporary teachers, and hiring more teachers who may not be fully trained. At the state and federal level, there is greater interest in investing in the pipeline through programs like Grow Your Own, where teachers are recruited and trained from the communities they will serve.
Q: Of course, students’ experiences also have been greatly affected by the pandemic. How has the pandemic exacerbated inequities across the country?
Dean: Several different effects come to mind. First is the reduced and disrupted instruction across grades. Emerging research suggests that students had less time with their teachers overall, and that the quality of instruction also varied more than usual. On top of that, students have been socially isolated and disrupted due to frequent school closures and COVID-related absences, which is deeply concerning to pediatricians, child advocates, and educators.
Students and schools have struggled to access necessary services and supports, like targeted and differentiated instruction for students with special needs. I’m not criticizing anyone—teachers and leaders are doing all that they can—but they’re triaging other matters, so some of these specialized resources end up falling by the wayside.
As a consequence, some of the most harmful effects will hit students who are most vulnerable to begin with—students who have special needs, or students who don’t have technology access or a safe and comfortable place to study.
Q: Are there any silver linings around how the pandemic has affected the U.S. education system?
Dean: Of course people are mostly focused on the disruptions that COVID-19 has caused, which makes sense. But there are some positives that could come out of this. One is the idea that schooling can look different. Educators and systems can serve students in new ways, and students can have access to different learning environments that fit their individual needs. It’s also encouraging the public, policymakers, and educators to think more critically about teaching and learning via nontraditional means, and how they can support it, and build evidence about it.
It has also shone a spotlight on how heroic our educators are. They’ve handled so many challenges in their day-to-day work. They have received some criticism, but I think overall, communities are seeing how hard their teachers work, and that hits so many dinner tables in the country.
Q: Where can we find you on a typical Saturday?
Dean: If I can, I’m sleeping in. I have a son who plays water polo, so often Saturdays are spent at his competitions. I live in Southern California, so that’s a pretty nice way to spend the day. One way or another, I’m probably spending time with my family. I also find yard work therapeutic.