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What's Missing From the Discussion of Teacher Shortages? A Researcher Explains

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There have been a lot of headlines about teacher shortages. But what is missing from the conversation?

A new policy brief, "Missing Elements in the Discussion of Teacher Shortages," published earlier this month in the Educational Researcher journal, seeks to add nuance to the national conversation

Specifically, the researchers discount media headlines and some research that points to a national shortage—instead, they write that there are pockets of shortages in certain subject areas (like STEM and special education) or in certain districts (in rural areas or high-needs schools). 

That distinction is important, they wrote, because policies that try to increase the overall supply of teachers are "akin to trying to hit a pin with a sledgehammer." Instead, they call for targeted policies that address specific shortage areas—like offering bonuses to STEM teachers, or loan-forgiveness programs for teachers who work in high-needs schools. 

I spoke with one of the authors of the report, Dan Goldhaber, who is a vice president at the American Institutes for Research. Our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, follows.

On the origins of the teacher shortage narrative: 

"I'd say it's probably related to the economic cycle, and mostly related to when the economy starts to do well and the job market is a lot tighter," Goldhaber said. "This is the second time I've seen this very similar narrative. This discussion is pretty similar to the discussion that occurred in the late '90s, connected to the dot-com boom. There was a whole lot of discussion then about losing teachers, especially high-tech STEM teachers, to that sector."

On the "missing elements" of the discussion on teacher shortages: 

"One thing that is missing is that there are long-standing difficulties in getting high-quality or even enough people into some kinds of schools, and those difficulties have been pretty consistent over a long time period," Goldhaber said. "Framing it in a very generic way that there's a shortage misses important nuances."

For example, he said, look at teacher positions in disadvantaged or rural schools, or STEM, ELL, and special education teacher positions: "Those are chronically more difficult positions to staff, and there are labor reasons why."

Another problem, Goldhaber said, is there is no national teacher labor market. "To talk about the national teacher shortage makes no sense at all. Labor markets are founded by states. There's not a lot of cross-state teacher mobility," he said. "And some states chronically overproduce teachers and send teachers outside state boundaries, and some states are much more desperate than others to hire teachers."

"In terms of framing, that is problematic. That there are these state-imposed frictions in the labor market that lead to a lack of mobility—we really have no concept how many people move from one state to another and decide to re-enter the labor market."

Getting re-certified as a teacher in a different state is difficult to navigate and costly, Goldhaber said. "That's problematic. If you look at the number of people who are trained every year, complete novices are hired. Then there are many, many ... people who are out there in the labor market that have qualifications to teach.

"Framing [the issue as a national teacher shortage] doesn't get you to think about the issues in those ways—[it doesn't] lead you to think about solutions, other than, 'we just need to get more teachers in teacher preparation programs.'"

On the problem with teacher preparation enrollment: 

Goldhaber acknowledges the country needs to recruit more people to be teachers—but only, he said, in certain subjects. 

He recently saw an article that showed there was a bump in teacher preparation enrollment in California after several years of decline. But buried at the bottom of the article, he said, was the fact that the majority of teacher candidates were getting trained in early education.

"We aren't producing enough STEM teacher candidates," he said. "There's generally not much in the way of differential pay. Someone who can master science and math courses ... has competing job opportunities. We'd be better off if we had more in the way of differential pay."

On possible solutions for local shortages: 

High-need and rural schools "really do struggle a great deal to hire people, even at the elementary level. There has to be something that is done to make those kinds of positions more desirable," he said. "The natural thing to point to is salary."

Other options, Goldhaber said, include giving teachers in hard-to-staff schools or positions a part-time aide, or the promises of smaller class sizes, to sweeten the deal. 

Goldhaber said he's not a big fan of tuition waivers because "a lot of people who train to be a teacher leave or aren't that great at the job. It's much more effective to just raise the pay." 

On quality vs. quantity: 

"The conversation that focuses on numbers—quality matters a lot more," Goldhaber said. "I would rather have my children in a somewhat larger class that had a really skilled person as an instructor, than have a small class with someone I don't think is very capable."

If you're interested in the subject of teacher shortages, register for Education Week's webinar on Nov. 30. I'll be moderating a conversation about the scope of the teacher shortage and solutions to curb the hiring gaps with Linda Darling-Hammond, the president and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute, and Kate Walsh, the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality. 


More on Teacher Shortages:

Image via Getty

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