Is Our Teacher Shortage a National Crisis or Local Dilemma?

Retro headlines greeted the opening of this 2015–2016 school year with national commentary debating the teacher shortage, a topic lost among the mainstream education conversations of the recession years.

In “Teacher Shortages Spur a Nationwide Hiring Scramble (Credentials Optional),” Motoko Rich reported that a cross-country search for teachers in math, science, bilingual education, and special education resulted from recession-era layoffs “combined with an improving economy in which fewer people are training to be teachers.” The urban needs of Louisville, Nashville, Oklahoma City, and Providence were mentioned, but the focus was primarily on California — a state that eliminated 82,000 school positions between 2008 and 2012 and consequently watched teacher-training enrollment drop.

As of early August, California sought to fill 21,500 positions, a considerable challenge considering that the state’s issuance of teaching credentials has not kept pace with the need — it awarded fewer than 15,000 credentials during the 2013–2014 academic year. Many of these teaching positions, projected Rich, would go to new teachers who qualified for emergency certification and “internships”— what are actually full-time positions — while they completed their required teacher training.

Is California’s dilemma, though, echoed throughout the nation? According to the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, the state’s teacher education enrollment fell 55 percent between 2008 and 2012, while federal data show that between 2010 and 2014, the nationwide decline was 30 percent overall — a signifant portion, but also substantially lower than the decrease in California. Since California’s numbers were nearly twice as bad as the federal average, perhaps its teacher shortage problem isn’t fully representative of a national crisis in education.

Geography and Subject Matter

In a September 10 piece for The Atlantic, Laura McKenna differentiates between “shortages” and “staffing problems.” The former refers to a significant misalignment between the number of qualified teachers and the number of available teacher positions; the latter, meanwhile, speaks to the more localized problem of filling certain teacher positions.

It is difficult to assess whether reasons for staff shortages are similar across states, writes McKenna, because each submits statistics to the Department of Education differently. Aggregated media reports that combine these numbers serve only to spread “inconsistent information” that fails to provide a nuanced account of the teacher shortage issue.

McKenna argues that the issue isn’t one of teacher numbers, but of location and certification. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of teachers in this country has largely remained consistent, and over the past 30 years has in fact increased. And the national average for student-to-teacher ratios has steadily declined. In other words, there are more teachers overall, and they are each responsible for fewer students than their predecessors were. Though staffing may indeed be a problem, as McKenna asserts, the issue centers largely around geography and subject matter: Certain areas (like California) do not have as many teachers as are needed, and certain high-demand teaching specialties (like STEM) are more difficult to hire for in particular places.

“While the country’s teaching force is certainly dealing with a staffing problem,” she wrote, “a closer look at the numbers shows that shortages are centered in particular subject areas and geographic areas.”

New York, for example, has a surplus of teachers, especially those who have majored in elementary education and secondary English and history education. If some of these teachers relocated to urban and rural areas of need, and others became certified in additional subject areas, the redistribution could resolve “staffing problems.” But because states do not share a single set of certification criteria, this process requires teacher candidates to navigate the requirements established by each state’s department of education — and to attain the appropriate certification for their home state.

Unrealistic Expectations

According to leaders in the field, redistribution and other unrealistic expectations are fueling teacher shortage across America. On August 15, the New York Times published several letters to the editor in response to Mokoto Rich’s article. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), cited two reasons for the growing lack of interest in her profession: reliance on test scores to measure teacher success, and a lack of time for classroom preparation.

“Thanks to our test-and-punish fixation, high-stakes test prep has eclipsed teaching and learning and is sucking the creativity and joy out of classrooms. New and seasoned teachers want careers that allow them to make a difference, grow, and effect change,” Weingarten argues.

Andrew E. Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation and the former President of Columbia Teacher’s program, blamed a need for more “rigorous teacher preparation,” “attractive financial aid programs,” and “effective mentoring programs.”

In at least two separate reports, NPR’s Education Correspondent Eric Westervelt spoke to the sentiments of both Weingarten and Levine on “All Things Considered.” In his segments, he cited controversy over the Common Core state standards, high-stakes testing and its link to teacher evaluations, the erosion of tenure, and budget cuts, characterizing the difficulty of attracting new teachers as a crisis.

Higher Pay a Possible Solution

Steven Newton, Programs and Policy Director for the National Center of Science Education, suggests a solution to this impending crisis in “Where Have All the Teachers Gone?,” published by The Huffington Post on September 29.

“Want to start the school year with permanent teachers in every classroom? Then create an environment where adults are properly compensated for their work, where teachers are not blamed for every manifestation of social problems, where meaningless tests given for the sake of ‘accountability’ do not dominate the school year.” Newton says the “toxic combination of high student debt with low-paying work” sends people into other professions.

But Andrew Biggs, writing for Forbes, argues that there are problems with this line of thinking. In “Is There Really a Teacher Shortage?” published on August 13, Biggs writes that, on average, public school teachers make more money than they could in the private sector, considering paid vacation time and benefits coverage.

Analyzing data from Connecticut, Biggs says that the number of applicants for teacher positions has increased through the years. As for subject area needs, he advances the position taken by Laura McKenna by suggesting that schools and states offer higher pay for “harder-to-fill positions.” This strategy would encourage redistribution and also retain STEM teacher candidates often drawn to higher-paying jobs in the private sector. But this strategy probably won’t get implemented, he admits, because teacher unions will ignore “the forces of supply and demand” and not allow some employees to earn higher pay than others.

Regardless of the role of standardized tests in teacher accountability, or of the need for higher teacher pay, or of the practicality of redistribution, states and school districts need to recruit and retain education professionals, because one thing is absolute in the debate over teacher shortages: Districts across the country are in need of qualified teachers.

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