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Teaching Force Growing Faster Than Student Enrollment Once Again

The number of U.S. teachers has grown by 13 percent in four years, according to new data from the federal government, and has far outpaced the rise in student enrollment over the same time period.

The "ballooning" teaching force is not exactly a new trend—but it is one that stalled around the recession. Now, it seems it has resumed. 

Earlier this week, the federal government released the National Teacher and Principal Survey, a redesign of the Schools and Staffing Survey it has put out every four years since 1987.

The new data show that there were about 3.8 million K-12 public school teachers across the country in 2015-16. That's up from about 3.4 million teachers in the 2011-12 school year.

That jump is much larger than the increase in student enrollment over that time.

In 2011-12, there were 49.5 million public school students nationally, according to the National Center for Education Statistics' Common Core of Data. (NCES also developed the teacher survey). The data aren't out for 2015-16, but for the year prior, there were 50.3 million students. And NCES estimates that there will be 50.4 million public school students counted for last year, according to its Digest of Education Statistics.

To spell that out: The number of students went up about 2 percent over four years. And the number of teachers went up 13 percent during that same time.

I've included a couple charts below to try to illustrate this more clearly. The top chart shows how the number of students and the number of teachers have changed over time. The bottom chart shows the percent change from year to year for both students and teachers. (I compared three years for which the teacher data was available. I started at zero for 2007-08 to just show the change from there.)

Richard Ingersoll, a professor of education and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, who has long studied teacher-staffing trends, explained in an interview that teacher growth outpaced student growth for more than two decades before the recession. Then, between 2007-08 and 2011-12, the number of teachers stalled (even went down a little).

"The question was, will it continue [to grow]?" he said. "And, yeah, it looks like it's continued again."

Here's a chart from Ingersoll's seminal "Seven Trends" report, which was updated in 2014. (His numbers include private school teachers, who were excluded from the recent teacher survey.)

ingersoll teachers 7 trends chart.JPG

So why was—and is—the teaching force "ballooning," as Ingersoll calls it? An increase in special education teachers and those teaching English-language learners accounts for some of it, he says. And as states upped their math and science graduation requirements, some districts hired more teachers in those subjects.

But getting a handle on the labor market nationally is quite tough, and "we never were able to figure all of it out," he said.

For that reason, it's also hard to tell what the new increase in teachers means as well. Were schools holding out on needed hires during the recession, and are they making up for it now? Have districts financially recovered to the point that they feel comfortable trying to reduce class sizes? (Some class sizes have gone down slightly and others gone up, the report shows.) Are teacher education programs rebounding, and is that easing hiring?

None of this means that schools haven't struggled to find teachers—in fact, shortages are well documented in particular geographic regions and subject areas, such as special education. But it does show that districts are, in fact, finding people to hire—and more quickly than they're adding students.

Whatever the reasons for the growth in the teaching force well beyond student enrollment growth, "financially it's a ticking time bomb, we think," Ingersoll said. "The main budget item in any school disrict is teacher's salaries. This just can't be sustainable."


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