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What We're Talking About When We Say 'Teacher Shortage'

Guest post by Ross Brennemen, originally posted at Teaching Now.

Across the country, states and districts have ramped up efforts this summer to recruit new teachers, as they work to avoid vacancies at the start of the new school year.

Data around the size of the teaching profession is only current up through 2011, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, but estimates suggest that by 2018, there will be more teachers than ever before.

In a new story for Education Week, I wrote about teacher shortages in spots across the nation and how districts and states are responding in some cases. The gist is that, while there are many instances of teacher shortages nationwide, the number of teachers per student has remained relatively constant.

Current estimates show that there are about 100,000 fewer public school teachers than there were in 2008, at the onset of the Great Recession. Since there are 14,000 public school districts, per the U.S. Census Bureau, that number works out to just about seven teachers per district. (Not that districts across the board lost seven teachers each, obviously. New York City, for instance, shed about 8,100 general education teachers between 2007 and 2012, although it gained about 2,500 special education teachers.) Teacher-prep enrollment numbers are also down over the past several years.

At the same time, though, a soon-to-be-record-high teaching population and teacher shortages are not mutually exclusive. So let's break down what the term "teacher shortage" actually refers to.

Subject-Area Shortages

The U.S. Department of Education has information running back over two decades on teacher shortage areas in each state by subject. That list doesn't reflect whether states are actually hiring such teachers, so much as denote that they would like to.

From that federal data, four trends are most visible:

  • Special education teachers do the Lord's work: Almost every state has long needed and continues to need special education teachers of all stripes. For a position that is coveted, though, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the average salary for special education teachers is almost indistinguishable from non-special education teachers'. I don't think that's how supply and demand is meant to work.
  • Science and math teachers are widely needed: While many states have long sought to have more math and science teachers, there's an uptick in the middle of the last decade. Part of that is likely the increased accountability for math proficiency under the No Child Left Behind Act, and some might have been inspired by the boom in STEM careers. (The shortage list doesn't always differentiate by scientific fields.) Government officials, from President Obama on down, have been pushing for more STEM teachers.
  • What subjects have too many teachers? If there are so many members of the teaching profession, but shortage areas remain, then it's reasonable to believe some subjects have too many teachers. The likely culprits: English and early childhood. Relatively few states listed English or humanities as shortage areas in 2014-15. And a January 2013 Education Week analysis found that many states oversupply elementary teachers.
  • Don't get certified in New York: New York reported no shortages in core subject areas last year, though like many states, it does need bilingual educators. The Empire State may be the most competitive job market, with somewhere under 30 percent of new teachers being able to find jobs.

(Teacher opinion blogger Peter Greene has done yeoman's work highlighting news stories about teacher shortages from every state and the District of Columbia, while adding some color commentary, if you're interested.)

Demographic Shortages

The teaching profession is very white. It is, specifically, 82 percent white. High school teachers are a little less likely to be white, at 70 percent. There are a lot of reasons why the teaching profession may be so white. Some may be due to discrimination in teacher licensing tests. Some may also be due to the systemic discrimination within the U.S. education system, including quality of instruction and disciplineIn the words of Christina Berchini, writing in Education Week Teacher in April:

"Why would historically marginalized populations elect to eventually become teachers for the very system that (likely) underserved them in some way?"

This is the kind of discussion that generally invokes protest from a segment of white teachers, who would point out that they are just as qualified and capable of teaching students of color. Some might even point to the population of Asian-American and Pacific-Islander students, who are very unlikely to ever have a teacher of their own ethnicity, yet still excel in school.

But proficiency is not the chief issue. (And that "model minority" business can be a harmful and erroneous stereotype.) "Ultimately, parents are going to respect anybody who they think cares for their kids," Andres Antonio Alonso, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, told The New York Times in April. "But if there are no people who somehow mirror the parents and the kids, then I think there could be a problem."

Or, as a group of four researchers and educators wrote for the Albert Shanker Institute in July:

"A diverse teaching force challenges the assumption that some of the qualities needed most by high-quality, effective teachers—intelligence, intellectual curiosity, and deep content knowledge—are difficult to find in large supply amongst individuals of color seeking to enter the teaching profession." 

Sometimes, the lack of teachers of color can be a self-perpetuating cycle. With mentorship a highly touted factor in teacher retention, teachers of color may struggle without an in-school lifeline who understands having the added weight of being, say, "the one black teacher." Donald G. Nicolas, a 5th grade teacher in Florida, wrote about this for Education Week in February 2014: 

"I honestly think it's a challenge for black men to find someone in their school willing to level with them and be honest about the great responsibility that comes not only with being an educator, but a black male educator at that."

For districts facing dire vacancy issues, demographic diversity might not be a primary thought. But the two go hand in hand: Imagine if the segments of the population who haven't been supported or encouraged to enter the teaching profession felt different.

What Other Issues Are at Work in Shortage Stories?

If you graduated with a degree in computer science, would you rather join a multibillion-dollar enterprise in San Francisco, or teach in South Dakota? Congratulations to those of you who have chosen the latter. Even the best-paying states are unlikely to compete with tech startup money.

For those educators who can abide a low salary, the other working conditions in a state can be a turnoff. The Independence, Mo., school district has started openly advertising its teaching vacancies across its state border with Kansas, where teacher unrest has led to what some have dubbed an "exodus." Kansas, under Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, slashed education spending this year by over $44 million. Arizona is a second prominent example of a state trying to work around financial issues.

Finally, there's the public perception of the teaching profession itself. Some recent surveys have found teachers unenthusiastic about their profession, and many teachers hesitate to recommend it. Experts say that kind of public negativity can hurt pursuit of a teaching career.

"The everyday teacher who's doing a good job, who the parents like, the kids like—that doesn't go viral," said Karen Gallagher, dean of the University of Southern California's Rossier School of Education, in an interview.

Then again, teachers have been telling students not to follow in their footsteps for decades, and there's about to be a record number of educators. Maybe students haven't been listening. Teenagers!

What Does This All Mean?

While there are many stories about local teacher shortages, the case for a national crisis isn't so easy to make. The labor force for teaching is too regional, really, too much of a patchwork approach to certification, licensure, and working conditions, to gauge what drives shortages in any given district. But just because the cause of such vacancies might be hard to pin down doesn't mean there aren't obvious issues that, if addressed, could improve the outlook for districts in need.


More on the factors behind teacher shortages:


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