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The Teacher Shortage Is Complicated

In the next decade, it's estimated that more than 1.5 million new public-school teachers will be needed ("A Million New Teachers Are Coming," Education Policy Center, May).  I don't question the number, but I think the reality is more nuanced.

To begin with,  any one state may have a surfeit of elementary-school teachers but a paucity of high-school teachers.  Moreover, at the high-school level, the shortage may be in only certain subject fields.  For example, finding qualified teachers in the physical sciences and math is much harder than finding teachers in social studies and physical education.

Even if teachers can be recruited in these strategic fields, the problem is not over because of the challenge of retaining them. It's not only costly in terms of disruption but also in monetary terms. According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, attrition costs run between $1 and $2.2 billion annually.  

Compounding matters is the disparity in the rate of leaving between minority teachers and white non-minority teachers.  Race should play no role in teacher effectiveness, but it does. Minority students often find it easier to identify with teachers of their own race, and their performance reflects this tendency.

Although salaries have slowly improved, the increase has been uneven. For example, since 2005 New York suburban districts have paid thousands of teachers six-figure salaries ("6-Figure Salaries? To Many Teachers, a Matter of Course," The New York Times, Jun. 4, 2005). Yet rural districts in the south and elsewhere lag far behind.  

I don't think prospects are going to change significantly in the foreseeable future. The accountability movement and relentless criticism have undermined teacher morale in a way that I've never seen before. There will always be teachers who are able to rise above these factors and make the classroom their career. I applaud them. But the sheer number of new teachers needed means that a sizable portion of them will quit. This does not bode well for students.

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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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