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The Truth About the Teacher Shortage

Is there really a teacher shortage in this country? The usual data cited are from the U.S. Department of Education's Digest of Education Statistics. It shows that in 1970 there were 2.06 million public school teachers, or one for every 22.3 students. Today, there are 3.27 million public school teachers, or one for every 15.2 students. At first glance, these numbers seem to indicate that there is no teacher shortage and that class sizes are not too big ("The Imaginary Teacher Shortage," The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 9). But these conclusions are misleading.

First, the shortage more accurately refers to the need for 240,000 new science and math teachers in the next decade. At present, approximately 25 percent of high school math teachers and 20 percent of high school science teachers lack even a minor in their teaching field ("The Teacher Shortage: National Trends for Science and Mathematics Teachers," The Journal of Mathematics and Science, Vol. 7, 2004). That's not surprising because college graduates who major in science and math can earn much more in private industry than they can in public schools ("Giving Up on Math and Science Careers," The New York Times, Nov. 7, 2011).

Second, the shortage is most acute in inner-city and rural schools. Suburban districts have no problem hiring and holding on to the best teachers. In the counties surrounding New York City, for example, thousands of teachers make more than $100,000 annually working in well-equipped classrooms and supported by parents. Charter schools with large disadvantaged populations also are not seen as desirable places to work because of the chaotic backgrounds of students ("Teacher turnover and the stress of reform," Los Angeles Times, Jul. 31, 2011).

Third, the shortage focuses mostly on recruitment, rather than on retention. It also fails to distinguish between the number of good and bad teachers who leave. These omissions are important because it can take schools as many as 11 hires to find just one irreplaceable teacher ("Why NYC can't keep great teachers," New York Post, Aug. 1). Morale is at its lowest point in more than two decades, according to the latest annual MetLife Survey of the American Teacher. One in three teachers said they were likely to leave the field in the next five years. They cited concerns about job security but also about increased class size ("Teacher Survey Shows Morale Is at a Low Point," The New York Times, Mar. 7).

Finally, the shortage will continue unabated until reformers get real about the limitations of even the best teachers. Students spend only a small portion of their waking hours at school. The rest of the time is spent in their neighborhoods and homes. As long as we deny the impact that these factors have on learning, the most talented college graduates will shun teaching. Idealism will go only so far. I don't blame them. Who wants to be scapegoated after investing so much in a career that once was respected and admired?

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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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