The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The real reasons behind the U.S. teacher shortage

Kindergarten teacher Gracia Hidalgo, left, welcomes new student Valentina Tapia, 5, and her mother, Andrea Tapia, center, before the start of the first day of school Monday at T.J. Austin Elementary School in Tyler, Tex. (Andrew D. Brosig/Tyler Morning Telegraph via AP)

There’s a teacher shortage across the United States — but that’s not exactly news. The U.S. Department of Education maintains an annual list — state by state — showing the subject areas in which there are too few teachers going back to the 1990-91 school year. What’s new is the size of the shortage and the reasons for it.

The official nationwide Teacher Shortage Area list for 2015-16 year (you can see the list here or below) is not a list of job postings but a reference to where states and schools are potentially looking to hire administrators and teachers. And the comparisons within many states tells a disturbing story: growing teacher shortages in key subjects.

For example, in Arizona, in 1990-1991, fewer than 10 schools and no more than 15 districts were listed as having unspecified shortages. For 2015-16, statewide shortages in various disciplines are listed. For example, in middle schools, ESL and BLE teachers are needed, and foreign language, general science, math, reading, special education and art educators are in shortage supply. Then there are countywide geographic shortages, as well.

California, in 1990-91 and 1991-92 school years, had K-12 shortages in bilingual education, life science and physical science. In 2015-16, there are statewide shortages in English/Drama/Humanities, History/Social Science/ Math/Computer Education/ Science/Self-Contained Class/Special Education (including State Special schools).

But the fact that teacher shortages aren’t new doesn’t mean they aren’t important. Exactly how big the shortages are is not known; numbers are inexact, but officials in a number of states say they are concerned the shortages could be bigger than ever.

The reasons why this is happening are important. Teachers always come and go, but in recent years there are some new reasons for the turnover. Polls show that public school teachers today are more disillusioned about their jobs than they have been in many years. One 2013 poll found that teacher satisfaction had declined 23 percentage points since 2008, from 62 percent to 39 percent very satisfied, the lowest level in 25 years. Fifty-one percent of teachers reported feeling under great stress several days a week, an increase of 15 percentage points reporting that level in 1985.

I’ve written several posts about shortages in individual states, detailing how they are resulting amid school reform initiatives that have evaluated teachers by standardized test scores, and/or reduced collective bargaining rights, and/or forced teachers to administer a mountain of standardized tests to students and teach to the test, and/or suffered inadequate funding.

For example, teachers are fleeing Arizona in droves. From the post:

Over the last five years, thousands of teachers have left the state, according to a 2015 report by the Arizona Department of Education, with this past school year being possibly the worst. The report warns if teachers keep leaving, “students will not meet their full potential” and “Arizona will not be able to ensure economic prosperity for its citizens and create the workforce of tomorrow.” It calls for increased pay for teachers and more overall education funding in the state.
Why are so many teachers leaving? Educators say reasons include low pay, insufficient classroom resources, and so many testing requirements and teaching guidelines that they feel they have no flexibility and too little authentic instructional time.

Why don’t many teachers want to work in Indiana any more?

The percentage of all teachers getting a teaching license — including veterans — fell by more than 50 percent from 2009-10 to 2013-14, and there was an 18.5 percent decline in the number of licenses issued to new teachers during the same period, according to Indiana Department of Education figures.
And, as the Greensburg Daily News reported in a story in early July,  fewer students are enrolling in teacher preparation programs at Indiana universities….
What’s going on? Pretty much the same thing as in Arizona, Kansas and other states where teachers are fleeing: a combination of under-resourced schools, the loss of job protections, unfair teacher evaluation methods, an increase in the amount of mandated standardized testing and the loss of professional autonomy.

[Why teachers can’t hotfoot it out of Kansas fast enough]

The teacher shortages are affecting many states around the nation, as noted in this piece by Carol Burris, who recently retired as an award-winning New York high school principal and who is now the executive director of the Network for Public Education Fund, a nonprofit that advocates for public education. This appeared on the NPE’s newsletter, which you can find here.

Carol Burris wrote:

New Mexico’s Rio Rancho School District lies just north of Albuquerque. When school opened, the district was still in desperate need of teachers. Students in 33 classrooms were met by a permanent substitute who in some cases had a bachelor’s degree, but no teaching certification of any kind.

Shortly before schools opened in Arizona, at least 1,000 teaching positions had yet to be filled. Some positions did not have even one applicant — choosing among the best candidates was not an option.

Nevada does not have enough teachers. If every graduate from Nevada’s teacher preparation programs were hired on the spot, the state still expected to be short. Clarke County alone anticipated having fewer than the whopping 2,600 teachers it needed to open school.

In Oklahoma, the shortage has reached emergency proportions as teachers flee like refugees across state lines to get jobs in better paying states. School officials have traveled to Puerto Rico and Spain to fill slots, especially in bilingual education.

The state of California has not been spared. Students in the Bay Area of San Francisco may find their teacher is a central office staffer, as schools scramble to put an adult in the classroom. Although the California shortage is most acute in the northern part of the state, some lawmakers are concerned that it is spreading from north to south.

These are a few of the recent stories that have appeared in local newspapers across the country. There are many more. Too many of our nation’s children do not have the qualified permanent teacher they deserve. There is no indication that the problem will be solved anytime soon, and every indication that it will get worse.

A recent story in The New York Times by Motoko Rich brought national attention to the problem. Rich described the extraordinary efforts districts are taking to put someone in the front of the classroom — ready and credentialed or not. She attributes the shortage to an improving economy — teachers were laid off during the recession and now when new positions are opening, there are job opportunities that are just more attractive to college graduates. There is some truth to the argument she makes.

But the economic upturn is only a part of the story.

Earlier this year, NPR also reported on the national teacher shortage. Correspondent Eric Westervelt’s identification of the cause went beyond the usual suspect — the economy. Noting the dramatic drop in enrollment in teacher education programs (a 74 percent drop in less than 10 years in California), he astutely attributed at least part of the problem to the way corporate reforms have impacted the profession.

Westervelt reported that the Common Core and its battles, high-stakes testing, the erosion of tenure, and the evaluation of teachers by test scores, have all contributed to the crisis.

This comes as no surprise to those inside the profession.

David Gamberg is the superintendent of the Greenport and Southold districts on Long Island’s east end. He has long worried that the politically hostile environment for teachers is contributing to the shortage we are seeing today. “I suspect that a range of issues conspire to exacerbate the problem. Certainly the ongoing, nationwide attack on teachers and unions is near or at the very top of the list of factors driving people away.”

What Gamberg suspects has evidence. There are frequent stories about public school teachers who are leaving the profession or taking early retirement because of the toll of working in a “test and punish” environment. A November 2014 National Education Association survey reported that nearly 50 percent of all teachers are considering leaving due to standardized testing. Of equal concern is how frequently educators are cautioning young adults about entering the profession.

Renowned author and teacher of literacy Nancie Atwell recently won the first annual $1 million Global Teacher Prize awarded by the Varkey Foundation. When she was asked by CNN whether she would advise others to become a public school teacher, her response was she would not. She said she would tell them to find a job in the private sector, or in an independent school instead. She spoke about how constricting both the Common Core and testing have made the profession. “If you’re a creative, smart young person, I don’t think this is the time to go into teaching unless an independent school would suit you,” she said.

Education Week reported on the story, which was followed by a poll. By nearly a 5 to 1 margin, respondents said that they would not recommend teaching as a profession. Considering that Education Week readers are by and large educational professionals, that response, combined with the NEA data, is a clear indicator of the stress felt within the profession from outside reforms.

If we are to turn this trend around, we need to act now to not only stop the attacks on teachers and tenure, but to stop evaluation systems designed to fire teachers based on metrics that no one understands. And we cannot forget that pay and working conditions matter. It should also come as no surprise that in states that pay teachers relatively well like New York State, the shortage does not yet exist. Even so, enrollment in teacher preparation programs in the Empire State dropped 22 percent in two years time. Many factors are contributing to the decline.

It is time for policymakers to step back and chart a different course. It makes no sense to cling to failed reforms. As school begins, students across the country are paying a hefty price.

How ironic it would be if the reforms based on the belief that three great teachers in a row are the key to student success, result in students not having certified teachers at all.

[The three-great-teachers-in-a-row myth]

(Correction: A date was mistyped; it is now fixed)

Here’s the U.S. Education Departments teacher shortage list, state-by-state: