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Did a War on Teachers Lead to New Shortages?

Note: Joshua Cowen is Associate Professor of Education Policy in the College of Education at Michigan State University and you can follow him on Twitter at @joshcowenMSU. Katharine Strunk is Associate Professor of Education and Policy in the Rossier School of Education and the Sol Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California.

Thanks for having me, Rick; long-time listener, first-time caller. I'm going to sound off this week about school choice and teacher quality. To kick things off today I've asked my friend and collaborator Katharine Strunk from the University of Southern California to help me think through some pressing questions on teacher-related reforms and teacher shortages. So, off we go:

After years of struggling with budget cuts, public school districts are finally emerging from recession-induced constraints on expenditures. Until very recently, news headlines from across the country bemoaned school districts being forced to resort to extensive teacher layoffs. But now we hear the happy news that districts are hiring again and we need teachers. WE NEED TEACHERS, except now there are none to be had! Suddenly, it seems we are in the midst of a massive teacher shortage. (See here to read the sounding of the alarm by The New York Times.) How can this be?

How can this be? This is a good question, and one that has a lot of folks speculating about potential causes. Today we want to think about just a few of them, and we want to start with the one getting the most press: Teachers are unhappy, they're leaving the classroom, and it's all because of all the reforms we've layered on public schools and teachers in the last decade or so. In fact, google the words "war on teachers," and the search results display news items, blog posts, speeches and other commentary on the high-profile policy reforms to the teaching profession taking place across the country. The line of thinking tying these changes to teacher shortages goes like this: the shortages "are resulting amid school reform initiatives that have evaluated teachers by standardized test scores, and/or reduced collective bargaining rights, and/or forced teachers to administer a mountain of standardized tests to students and teach to the test, and/or suffered inadequate funding."

Despite the fact that many reforms have only recently occurred, and continue to develop alongside other major changes to the education landscape—the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), for example—stories abound of their impact on teachers and teaching. Many come from teachers themselves, some of whom have aired what amount to public resignation letters explaining why they no longer can work in public schools.

These are compelling individual testimonies, but on the whole can we really say that the teacher shortage is happening in large part because policymakers have made the teaching profession untenable?

The answer: we don't really know. To be sure, some teachers are leaving for these reasons, as the posts above show. But as policy analysts, we need to consider other possibilities at the same time. For example, one explanation is that the teaching workforce has grown steadily older over the last few years, in part because younger people may be finding other work, but also because the structure of teacher pay and compensation remains heavily back-loaded in favor of later-career teachers. Older teachers will retire sooner than their younger colleagues, perhaps at rates that exceed our ability to hire more.

The economy may also be to blame. Over the last five or more years, teachers experienced serious threats to their job stability due to increased numbers of Reductions in Force and layoffs during the Great Recession. This likely makes teaching a less attractive profession to teachers who value stability.

It's also important to realize that the shortage has been percolating for a very long time and may have actually been mitigated by the economic downturn and reduced hiring rates. For instance, a recent report shows that in California, teacher preparation programs have been producing steadily fewer teachers since 2002, well before the current "anti-teacher" policies were introduced, and barely after the No Child Left Behind Act went into effect. Fewer people seem to be choosing a teaching career. Enrollment at teacher preparation programs has fallen... over at least the past decade.

Which leads to a more basic question: Is the teacher shortage even new? Today, it's the scale and location of the teacher shortages that are pressing. Until recently—over the past two decades, at least—teacher shortages have been most common in disadvantaged schools. Indeed, among the most consistent predictors of a teacher's exit have been the demographic characteristics of students in the school he or she teaches. Unfortunately, low-income, minority students and students with special needs tend to lose their teachers more frequently, with the most effective teachers who leave moving to more advantaged areas. These students have experienced teacher shortages for a long time. It just hasn't been front page news. Even today, there are real teacher shortages, but not everywhere, and not for every subject. The simple truth is that in many parts of the country, we don't have enough teachers to teach many of the kids who need them the most, and we haven't for a very long time.

But there is some sunshine through the clouds: more than a million-and-a-half new teachers are slated to enter the field in the next few years, and although some observers have worried about declining quality as much as quantity, it's possible that many of those new teachers are some of our best and brightest. A few months ago, a new study found that the academic ability of new teachers has steadily increased since 1999. And over the summer, another paper showed that teachers hired during the Great Recession were actually more effective than those hired earlier.

None of this is to suggest that teacher-related policy reforms have had no impact on individual teacher decisions to exit public schools or avoid the profession in the first place. The point is that we have yet to fully understand the extent to which this is true, much less what we can do about it. But we can use the data researchers, states and districts are gathering to help us uncover the causes of current trends in the teacher labor force and, importantly, to help design solutions. And then we can use evidence rather than anecdote in discussions of where to go next.

--Joshua Cowen and Katharine Strunk

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