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A Closer Look at the Teacher Shortage

The National Center for Education Statistics estimates that public schools will need more than 440,000 new elementary and secondary teachers by the end of the decade to replace retiring baby boomers. Whether this forecast is cause for alarm depends on a variety of factors that are poorly understood.

First, states are in no position to provide funds to school districts as freely as they have done since 1970, during which time the employment of teachers and teachers' aides increased 11 times faster than student enrollment ("America Has Too Many Teachers," The Wall Street Journal, Jul. 9). Moreover, there will be a shortage of 200,000 science and math teachers, whose backgrounds make them prime candidates for high-paying positions in the private sector ("Wanted: More science and math teachers in the US," Christian Science Monitor, Dec. 29, 2008).

Second, the over all growth in the public school workforce is deceptive. The numbers include not just classroom teachers but also administrators, counselors, librarians, nurses, aides and custodians. Although the services provided by the others are indispensable, particularly so in schools with low-income student populations, classroom teachers are overwhelmingly responsible for learning.

Third, the increase in the rate of employment does not take into account the rate of turnover. On average, about 55 percent of new public school teachers leave their district within five years. In inner-city schools such as the District of Columbia, 55 percent of new teachers leave in their first two years ("Is teacher churn undermining real education reform in D.C.?" The Washington Post, Jun. 15, 2012).

Fourth, shortages that exist in any subject field are not evenly distributed. Inner-city and rural schools have a much harder time recruiting and retaining teachers than suburban schools. The American Association of School Administrators found that 41 percent of districts with fewer than 250 students had serious difficulty attracting teachers, while 17 percent faced a similar problem retaining them. Inner-city schools have long faced the daunting task of hiring and holding on to teachers.

Finally, the unprecedented demands made on public schools are a disincentive in recruitment and retainment. High expectations without sufficient resources mean that few of the best and brightest college graduates will opt for a career teaching in public schools, or will leave within the first few years. Instead, they may consider private and religious schools, which are exempt from No Child Left Behind.

I understand why taxpayers are angry and frustrated. It seems that no matter how much money is spent on K-12, the results are lackluster. But it's important to bear in mind that even the best public schools cannot overcome the deficits so many students bring to class. That's not an excuse; it's an explanation for the shortage of highly qualified teachers.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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