Friday, November 27, 2015

Is the Teacher Shortage Real?

We talk a lot about the current teacher shortage. I've posted about it numerous times. But the question remains-- is there really a teacher shortage?

A study released this month by the National Center for Educational Statistics suggests that everything we think we know about the Great Teacher Shortage is wrong. Or at least, it was wrong as of four years ago. The study is pretty straightforward, and it's worth making a note of.

The writers are Nat Malkus of the American Institutes of Research with Kathleen Mulvaney Hoyer and Dinah Sparks of Activate Research, Inc. AIR is also in the test manufacturing biz (SBA is their baby) and Activate is a "woman-owned small business" in the metro DC area focusing on research and policy. They created the report under the aegis of NCES, an arm of the USED Institute of Educational Sciences, so while none of these are without blemish, this is not another Gates-funded fake research project.

The report looks at four samples of data from the 1999-2000, 2003-2004, 2007-2008 and 2011-2012 school years, and it looked for answers to fairly straightforward questions:

1) What percentage of schools reported teaching vacancies or hard-to-fill spots?

2) What percentage of schools found these positions related to particular subject areas?

3) Did persistent hard-to-fill spots correlate to any school characteristics?

The report is easy to read through and contains lots of charts, but the answers reached by the researchers are not necessarily what we might expect. Let me just hit the highlights.

The percentage of schools reporting vacancies and hard-to-fill spots in 2011-2012 was down from 1999-2000. In fact it's the lowest of the four years.

Those percentages were also uniformly down for all subject areas, including math and special ed.

High minority schools still experience more staff challenges than low-minority schools, but 2011-2012 was still dramatically lower.

Title I schools have a harder time than non-Title I schools, but 2011-2012 was still better than all other years (I'm just going to write "pickle" every time this is the case, to save myself some typing.)

Large schools have it harder than small schools, but pickle.

When comparing city, suburban, town and rural schools, the most staff challenged schools have shifted over the four year. Cities used to lead the challenge with rural schools having the lowest percentage of staff challenged schools. In 2011-2012, suburban schools reported the fewest problems. Cities still has the most, but in all four categories, pickle. Big pickle.

I don't know what explains the pickle, and to their credit, the reports writers take a stance of, "We're just here to show you the numbers, not to make wild-ass guesses about why the numbers are what they are." The appendices give some number breakdowns and report on methodology, and while I am no trained stats cruncher, I don't see anything that sets off whopping alarms.

So am I thinking that I'll just stand down because the teacher shortage turns out to be all in my head? No. No, I'm not.

First of all, I have a certain amount of trust in my head, so I don't just throw away my head's ideas willy-nilly. I am , however, open to the notion that the teacher shortage is partly an artifact of the media's tendency to focus on a story thread and magnify it (e.g. the great shark summer of 2001).

In Pennsylvania, I know exactly why the numbers would reflect a not-shortage of teachers-- we've been shedding jobs left and right, dropping 2000-5000 teacher jobs (depending on who's counting) every year for several years. This is doing a great job of setting the stage for a teacher shortage, as college students repeatedly declare a major in Anything But Teaching. The ABT major is actually leading some college ed departments to shrink or collapse. The choking off of the teacher pipeline sets the stage for a combination of overcrowded classrooms and an actual teacher shortage.

My reading of teacher shortage bulletins is that teacher shortages are highly localized, and while the study's sampling of around 8,000 districts would ordinarily be plenty, I have to believe that the specific samples could make a huge difference.

But mostly what these results say to me is, "Holy smokes! We have plunged into a bad place very quickly over the last four years!"

Take for instance Scott Walker's Wisconsin. Here's a piece that lists the growing effects of Walker's gutting of the state's education system-- from November of 2011. In other words, the most recent data sampling in the study was being gathered just as Wisconsin schools were starting to feel the crunch. Quick quiz: have things gotten better or worse in Wisconsin since 2011?

Or North Carolina, another state that moved rapidly from a progressive education-supporting agenda to a state intent on driving teachers out.

Over the past four years, things have gotten far worse pretty quickly in schools across the country, from Race to the Top to Common Core testing. And in 2011, schools were seeing the last of federal stimulus money that allowed schools to keep hiring. When the stimulus money ran out, many districts starting cutting staff to match.

Take a look at this snip from the fed's chart on teacher employment. The first column is total teachers, column two is public, and column three is private (numbers are in thousands of teachers). 2011 is the last year for which we have hard numbers. Note that teacher employment peaked in 2008, and we've been declining since. Nothing like cutting 100,000 jobs to help reduce the number of vacancies you're trying to fill. Put another way, the study shows that 1999 was the worst in terms of unfilled jobs, but as we added more teachers, the vacancy percentages dropped. But then the last drop coincides with a drop in number of jobs to be filled. There are two ways to solve an unfilled vacancy problem, and we have now tried both. Which approach do you think is more likely to fix things in the long run?

I'm saving a link to this study, because I believe it sets the stage for what's to come. I expect that when the next data set is added from further inside the reformy abyss, we'll see charts with upward hooks. I believe that the story will be, "Well, things were getting better, but then ed reform switched into overdrive, and it all want to hell pretty quickly."In short, nothing in this report contradicts the perception that a troublesome teacher shortage has appeared in the last four years.

I get that the Teacher Shortage is a complicated issue, for reasons including the desire of everybody on every side of the education debates to use talk of the shortage to support whatever point they'd like to make. But this new report definitely doesn't make me think that everything's actually okay, and I look forward to seeing more data when it finally appears.


  1. I'd also like to know how the numbers correlate with class sizes, cut arts and phys Ed, and cut para staff.

  2. "The percentage of schools reporting vacancies and hard-to-fill spots in 2011-2012 was down from 1999-2000. In fact it's the lowest of the four years."

    Context, Context, Context,

    I started teaching in 1999, and of course it was harder to find teachers. It was before the bubble burst and everyone was getting rich on the stock market.

    In 2011 we were still in the great recession. Teachers who might want to retire, had just seen their 401(k)'s decimated. The school districts had just finished slashing jobs, and NO ONE was hiring.

  3. I would argue that the teacher shortage phenomenon varies drastically from state to state. In 2013, I chose to move to Arizona to pursue teaching, because in the suburbs of NYC where I originally lived, there were no available teaching jobs, especially for a social studies teacher, we seem to be a dime a dozen. However, within hours of stepping foot in Arizona, I was offered a handful of teaching jobs, and I had no previous experience. My interviews were quick and painless and I was honestly in disbelief when within days principals sent e-mails and letters of intent. However, since starting my job and seeing how it all unfolds, it’s become very easy to see why I was scooped up so quick. Unfortunately, in states with low teacher salaries, high poverty rates, growing populations and weak teacher unions, teacher shortage is real.

    According to a 2014 ADE (Arizona Department of Education) survey, during the school year, there were 938 open teaching positions filled by substitute teachers. In addition, 53% of districts and charters reported they had between one and five educators break their contract or resign midyear during the 2013-2014 school year and 42% of the respondents in this same survey reported pursuing careers outside of education for higher pay as the primary reason for educators leaving their positions.

    As mentioned in the original post, college students are choosing not to enter the teaching profession. For example, in Arizona, in 2013, there was a 7% decrease from 2012 in the number of students enrolled in a State Board approved educator preparation program (U.S. Department of Education).

    Not only does it seem like there is a need for teachers, but there is also a visibly revolving door in Arizona schools. According to the ADE HQ database, 29% of teachers had three or less years of experience in the 2013-2014 school year. During this same school year, 24% of first year teachers and 20% of second year teachers left their positions and were not reported as teaching in Arizona. In my current district, the turnover rate averages about 20% per year; 2 in 10 teachers did not return this school year to the Buckeye Elementary School District, and in the past few years, Buckeye has had one of the county's highest turnover rates, 22 percent, for the 2011-12 school year (Ringle, 2012).

    Eventually, something is going to need to be done to keep teachers in the classroom, whether it be schools backing off with accountability pressures, finding ways to raise salaries or beginning to acknowledge and respect the profession… hopefully I’ll still be teaching when it happens.