Skip to main content What Happened to All the Teachers?

A recent headline from CNN that declares “schools throughout the country are grappling with teacher shortages” may seem like a rerun to anyone who’s been paying attention to news about public schools over recent years.

“A perennial issue,” an article in Education Week calls it, and points out most states have had chronic teacher shortages “for years, if not decades,” particularly in staffing positions in special education, math, science, and foreign-language instruction.

But this year’s reports of teacher shortages seem different. Indeed, mounting evidence should convince anyone who cares that providing students a guaranteed access to highly qualified teachers, no matter where they live – an ideal that’s never been a well-kept promise to begin with – is weakening even further.

CNN reporter Caitlin Ostroff cites evidence of teacher shortages in school districts as diverse as rural Maryland and New York City, but the evidence is even more widespread.

State officials in Colorado are estimating a shortfall of 3,000 teachers statewide this school year.

In Detroit, a shortage of teachers means classrooms are overcrowded and students won’t have music, art, and gym. Looming teacher shortages in New Orleans are forcing the city to think of new and creative ways to hire more than 900 teachers annually, until 2020.

Rural school districts have it particularly tough.

In a Minnesota small town school district that has struggled with teacher shortages for years, the superintendent tells a local reporter about advertising an opening for a fifth-grade teaching position and getting “zero applicants. None.”

A recent news story on teacher shortages in rural Texas schools finds, “Some districts without any takers for open jobs have resorted to livestreaming instruction from other schools or having educators teach more than one grade.”

To make up for the teacher drought, government officials in many places are resorting to drastic measures that can’t be good for the quality of instruction in our schools.

Indiana schools are using substitutes as a solution for its five-year dearth of first-year teachers entering the system. In Oklahoma, school districts experiencing years of teacher shortages are resorting to “novice” hires with little to no K-12 teaching experience. An investigation by an Arizona news outlet finds that chronic teacher shortages in that state have led to districts hiring unqualified, inexperienced staff – as many as 22 percent of teachers may now lack qualifications. An Arizona school district cited in the above Education Week article is filling in the gaps with parents, much like they’d call for chaperones for a field trip. Utah’s State Board of Education has responded to growing teacher shortages by letting schools hire teachers with zero teaching experience and no training.

Causes for these widespread shortages vary. Education Week reporter Madeline Will links Oklahoma’s teacher shortfall to the fact the state has “the lowest average teacher pay in the country.”

Teacher pay is a serious problem for sure. Ostroff quotes from a study that finds, “Salaries for U.S. secondary school teachers have largely remained the same over the past two decades.” Stagnant wages are particularly detrimental to recruiting math and science teachers because potential employees with these skills can often find higher paying work.

Retaining current teachers is a problem too. Another study Ostroff references notes, “eight percent of teachers leave teaching each year, with two-thirds quitting before retirement.”

That study, published last year by the Learning Policy Institute, provides the most robust analysis to date of what’s causing teacher shortages in many places. Among the factors analyzed include teacher working conditions, compensation, turnover, preparation and certification, and the attractiveness of the positions that are available.

Digging deeper into the data, the LPI study raises the even more alarming concern that enrollments in teacher education programs in the nation’s institutions of higher learning have dropped 35 percent between 2009 and 2014, which means the prospects of a readily available supply of newly trained teachers may not be in the offing.

More recent data find an uptick in the national supply of teachers, compared to student enrollment growth, but chronic, and seemingly worsening, problems with teacher shortages on record, both anecdotally and in the analysis provided by LPI, shouldn’t be ignored or minimized.

However, instead of digging deeper into the many causes and solutions for teacher shortages, the advisors who tend to have the ear of policy makers in Washington, DC and state capitals these days tend to call news of widespread teacher shortages a “myth.” Their thinking is invariably guided by the belief that problems of unfilled teacher positions are just a matter of aligning supply and demand – much like an accountant would view a business problem – so their advice is always to goose some area of the teacher pipeline with more incentives – usually better pay.

Giving people more money can sometimes have a positive effect on getting them to do what you want, but this thinking starts to break down in the education world.

First, teachers as a labor force aren’t inordinately responsive to financial incentives – that’s partially the reason they’ve chosen to take a very challenging job that is notoriously underpaid. Further, there’s some evidence that offering financial incentives to teachers results in little to gains in student learning. So what are we really aiming for?

What’s not at all helpful is to have loud-mouthed politicians continue to disparage teachers for being “overpaid” and “stupid.”

From a parent’s point of view, when you’re told that because of a teacher shortage, your child won’t get instruction in music and art or may have to put up with a math teacher who knows little about the subject, or about effective instructional practices, it matters little to you what someone’s spreadsheet analysis of the data says.

What it says to you is that there is something incredibly wrong with how our education system is treating teachers. And that’s not just an economic problem; it’s a cultural one.

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Jeff Bryant

Jeff Bryant is a communications consultant, freelance writer, advocacy journalist, and director of the Education Opportunity Network, a strategy and messaging cen...