Back in the summer of 2015, we were all making noises about the coming teacher shortage crisis. (I even did a state-by-state rundown.) And it wasn't really new in 2015; lots of folks had called it sooner than that, looking at data like the college teacher program numbers.
Shockingly, things have not improved on this front. At the Learning Policy Institute,Leib Sutcher, Linda Darling-Hammond, and Desiree Carver-Thomas last week released a study about current and future problems with teacher staffing. Their title--"A Coming Crisis in Teaching? Teacher Supply, Demand, and Shortages in the U.S."-- gives you an idea of where they're headed.
the interactive map, which lets you compare states on many of the salient issues with a click and a glance. For instance, the Teaching Attractiveness Rating (which rates the attractiveness of the career in the state and not how good-looking that state's teachers are) provides a quick visual answer to the question, "What would be the best state to go get a teaching job?" Oregon and Wyoming are at the top; Arizona and Colorado are at the bottom.
The full report is a whopping 107 pages, but in addition to the interactive map, there's a 16-page "brief." I recommend reading the report, but let me hit some highlights to whet your appetite.
First, the report actually gets the term "shortage" a little righter, defining a teacher shortage as " the inability to fill vacancies at current wages with individuals qualified to teach in the fields needed." Of course, that's not how laypersons understand the term-- to many folks "teacher shortage" means "not enough teachers." But as I have said many times, if I can't get anyone to sell me a Porsche for $1.95, that does not mean there's an automobile shortage. If I'm a brutally abusive misogynist, my inability to find a wife does not mean there's a woman shortage. If I prepare every meal by searing my menu items until they are black, charred, and inedible, my hunger is not an indication of a food shortage.
It never ceases to amaze me that so many acolytes of the free market refuse to see the invisible hand when it's smacking them in the face-- if you can't find enough teachers willing to work under your current conditions, that does not mean there's a shortage of teachers. You are your own problem.
Why can't we find enough teachers?
The report considers the reasons for the "shortage."
Increased student enrollment is pushing demand for teachers all by itself. They predict a 20% growth in teacher demand per year moving forward from 2015. If nothing else were happening, demand for teachers would be increasing all by itself.
But of course other things are happening. The profession continues to hemorrhage teachers. The writers say that we're losing 8% of the teacher force per year. Of those leaving, only one third are retiring at the end of a teaching career. The rest are leaving before retirement age, " most because of dissatisfaction with aspects of their teaching conditions."
Meanwhile, the pipeline for new teachers is drying up. Anecdotally, I can report that several schools in my region, including a couple that originated as teachers colleges, are shutting down some or all of their education programs because of low enrollment. The writers say that if current trends remain undisturbed, we're looking at 200K available new hires in a world with over 300K teacher openings. And the number of re-entrants will not be enough to make up that difference.
The report points toward that attrition rate, saying that getting the pipeline worked up is not enough-- a big part of the solution is to hold on to the teachers we have (a real problem for states or districts that are still determined to fire their way to excellence).
Coming and Going (and always too soon)
The report offers four factors in recruitment and retention:
1) Compensation. Yeah, I know we're supposed to do it because we love the kids. But new teachers also want to be able to afford to have kids of their own, and teacher salaries have been backsliding since the 1990s, so that a college student looking at the future sees teaching as far less financially rewarding than other fields. Here's a brutal factoid from the report-- in thirty states, mid-career teachers who head a family of four are eligible for three or more public benefits programs.
2) Preparation. "A growing body of evidence indicates that attrition is unusually high for those who lack
preparation for teaching," says the report. This has bad implications for all the states that are trying to address staffing issues by letting anyone with a pulse have a classroom. This also gets back to point #1-- real preparation costs money, and lots of it, and prospective teachers may not want to go into debt in a field that makes it hard to pay debt off.
3) Mentoring and Induction. Really important, but requires a lot of care, time, and therefor money.
4) Teaching conditions. Teachers in high-poverty schools are twice as likely to leave, and that seems to link pretty directly to lousy working conditions-- and that doesn't mean the students. It means the resources, the materials, the physical plant, and the administrative support. "Beyond resources, teachers’ plans to stay in teaching and their reasons for actually having left are strongly associated with how they feel about administrative support, collegial opportunities, and teacher input into decision-making."
In general, the following factors are related to higher rate of teacher turnover-- being new, being non-white, having little preparation, working in a high Title I school, teaching special ed and ESL classes, teaching in high-poverty schools, and teaching in the South.
And when it comes to frustration with teaching conditions, lack of autonomy and high-stakes testing are biggies.
So what should we do?
What would a paper about the teacher "shortage" be without policy recommendations? Here are a few.
1) Create competitive, equitable compensation packages. The writers suggest that compensation be beefed up and that it be weighted depending on the students and the school. This is hugely controversial, and yet teachers actually talk about it all the time. "I'm an English teacher who takes home papers every night, while that phys ed teacher who takes nothing home ever gets paid the same. Grrr." or "I could take my science background out into a private sector job for $50K tomorrow-- why shouldn't I be paid more if I'm worth more on the open market?" We keep these discussions to ourselves because we know it's rude and that a system in which teachers compete with each other for the limited tax dollars funding the school-- well, when you talk about work conditions, nobody wants to work in teacher thunderdome.
Is there a way to do this fairly? I don't know, though I do know that some school districts pay learning support teachers a stipend for the extra hours spent writing IEPs. We know merit pay doesn't work for any number of reasons, but I also know that a teacher working in a tough urban school that serves a high-poverty neighborhood ought to be paid more than average, yet probably gets paid less.
2) Enhance the supply-- particularly in certain areas. Offer forgiveable loans and service scholarships. Work to recruit, particularly from the area that needs the teachers. Create residency models in hard-to-staff districts and schools. These are all swell-ish, but they ignore the biggest issue of all-- make teaching conditions less crappy, including giving back teachers their autonomy and doing away with crappy timewasters like the BS Tests.
When you talk about recruitment in teaching, you have to remember one thing that is unique about the job. Unlike any other profession, almost every potential future teacher gets twelve years of job shadowing. The conditions under which current teachers labor are what the next generation of potential teachers think normal. Talk to any teacher and she will tell you about the teacher who made her see how exciting and full of possibilities the career could be. However, no teacher will tell you, "Yes, I saw the chance to devote myself to bubble testing and bubble test prep, and I saw how I could have a job where I'd be a glorified clerk, making few decisions for myself, and boy, I thought, that's the job for me."
Every teacher in a classroom right now is either a recruiter or an anti-recruiter. That's why retention efforts count double-- not only do you keep a good teacher and, with some effort, encourage them to be better, but that teacher in turn becomes a recruiter of the next wave of teachers. Every teacher who leaves the classroom because she Just Can't Take This Crap Any More takes a whole raft of potential future teachers with her.
3) That's why this one-- Improve teacher retention, particularly in hard to staff schools-- is so hugely important. Reformsters who see retention efforts as a clever trick to give the Evil Union more goodies need to open their eyes and take off their anti-union rage glasses. The paper suggests stronger mentoring, better school environments, and better principals. Again, we should also get the elephant out of the room and do away with high stakes testing and other crap that robs teachers of autonomy, of the chance to actually use their professional judgment.
4) Develop a national teacher market. Probably not. The best source for teachers in a community's school is the people in that community. Yes, we need people who can bring an outside perspective-- inbred school staffs do nobody any good. But a national teacher market clearing house probably won't make a huge difference. On the other hand, the proposal of more easily portable teacher credentials and pensions would be a nice touch, as long a sit doesn't become a means of exporting the lousiest state's worst credentialling practices, which, given the number of states who are getting ready to put teacher credentials in cereal boxes, is a real danger.
Before leaders start complaining about how expensive this will all be, the report points out that about $8 billion is wasted each year because of teaching turnover.
I have no idea how they generated that number, but I do know that the root of the teacher "shortage" is the root of many other labor "shortages" in this country used as excuses to outsource. There is no real mystery to what it would take to Strengthen the Profession.
Not just money to pay competitive salaries (and I mean real competitive salaries and not just illusory salaries constructed to look competitive while actually keeping personnel costs down), but the money to reduce teaching loads so that teachers have time to mentor and support one another, money to make teacher training less prohibitively expensive, money to make sure that every teacher has all the resources and support necessary to be successful, and even money to provide more support staff so that teachers can teach. And, of course, sweeping away the soul-choking baloney of testing tyranny would mean that some corporations would have to give up some of their rivers of revenue generated by the testing octopus. We find millions to spend on testing, but refuse to spend any more money on schools or the people who work in them.
When a millionaire can't find a good gardener to work for $1.95 an hour with nothing but a single short hose and a micromanaging amateur supervisor and requirement to maintain the two-acre garden in just three paid hours per week, the solution is not to train more gardeners or lower the standards for the work. The solution is not out there somewhere in the world of future gardeners or factories where technicians are developing new plant seeds or in the nation's gardening schools. The solution is close at hand, right in the millionaire's wallet.