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There Are No Quick Fixes for Teacher Shortage, Report Warns

If you think raising teacher salaries is the way to attract talented young people into the profession, well, that sort of easy-fix, across-the-board solution to the teacher shortage problem will just not do, according to a new report.

Such solutions, say the authors, don't take into account that shortages do not exist everywhere and in every field. There are, rather, isolated shortages in certain subject areas (like science, math, and special education) and in certain locales (like rural or high-needs schools), and these demand targeted solutions. You can read up on an earlier report examining the origins of the current teacher shortage and the issues exacerbating it here.

The new report, "Understanding and Addressing Teacher Shortages in the United States," homes in on strategies the authors say will increase the flow of teachers into areas where they're in shortest supply.

"We really emphasize that the news articles on shortages tend not to be all that nuanced and the issue of shortage is a lot more nuanced than the public policy discussion," Dan Goldhaber told Education Week. He is director of the Center for Education Data and Research at the University of Washington and a coauthor of the report along with Thomas S. Dee, the associate dean for faculty affairs at Stanford University. 

"It's not the case that we have a nationwide shortage. It is the case that we have a shortage in particular schools and school systems. So if we try to apply a generic solution to what is a more nuanced problem, we're not very likely to move the needle very much."

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Here are the suggestions the authors make to help school districts increase the supply of teachers in shortage areas.

Give Higher Pay Only to Teachers in Shortage Areas

Goldhaber said politicians are always looking to raise teacher salaries for the entire workforce when they should be targeting pay raises for teachers of shortage subjects, or for those willing to lead classrooms in rural or high-needs schools where shortages are severe and chronic. Policies that don't consider a district's specific staffing needs, say the authors, end up incurring unnecessary costs without moving any closer to a solution.

For instance, in the 2011-2012 school year, about 20 percent of schools reported difficulties recruiting STEM and special education teachers, and practically no schools reported problems with hiring in other specializations. So if only 20 percent of schools are hard to staff, conclude the authors, then providing pay increases to teachers in all schools would be five times more costly than it needs to be.

Matthew G. Springer, an expert on merit pay and an assistant professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University, said the report's proposal for targeted financial incentives "stands above the rest."

"The training, working conditions, and nonteaching opportunities for teachers differ significantly by teaching field and location, yet the salary schedule within a school district treats all teachers the same, regardless of field or location," he told Education Week.  "Until school systems begin to craft compensation systems that financially reward teachers in high-need subjects and in hard-to-staff schools, we will continue to face a teacher shortage."

Recruit Early and Aggressively

The research points in one direction: Districts need to be smarter about when and how they hire teachers, the authors say. Districts that start hiring late in the school year or after the new school year has begun are at a particular disadvantage. There are fewer teachers to choose from, and those who are hired late usually don't stay. Moreover, these teachers' students perform worse on math and reading tests than students whose teachers were hired on time. Late hiring is prevalent among schools serving disadvantaged students, the same schools facing teacher shortages.

The authors suggest districts rethink their old recruitment practices. Districts should recruit more broadly, by advertising on Twitter and Facebook and actively recruiting candidates in other states.

"Young teachers are more likely to use social media, so school districts have to be in that game if they want to do effective recruitment," said Goldhaber. But he also stressed the need for flexibility across state lines when it comes to teacher licenses. Otherwise, districts couldn't make full use of social media's ability to target teachers far and wide.  

Goldhaber pointed out in an interview that some states are producing more teacher candidates than they can hire. The report recommends that districts facing shortages form partnerships with these out-of-state education schools and recruit their graduates.

Recruit Student Teachers With Needed Subject-Area Expertise

Rather than waiting for teachers to retire before filling a position, districts should anticipate openings that will become available in the next school year. They should then bring in candidates who meet these anticipated needs to do their student teaching in the district. Goldhaber said school districts don't do this, even though there is evidence that candidates often end up working in the areas where they did their student teaching. This hiring strategy would also allow a school time to decide whether a teacher candidate is a good fit. "It's an early two-way interview between the school district and the candidate," said Goldhaber. "Student teaching allows candidates to get acculturated to the school and start to feel comfortable."

The report goes on to make several more suggestions for addressing shortages. States should increase alternative pathways into the profession; work with other states to make it easier for teachers to cross state lines without burdensome and costly licensure requirements; and do a better job of informing teacher candidates about openings in particular fields.

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