America's teacher shortage, driven by low pay, is ‘worse than we thought’

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Southeast Missourian, May 14, 2019

Half a decade ago, newspaper headlines were packed with “teacher shortage” stories. Today, not only newspaper headlines, but social media platforms are illustrating the critical situation caused by teacher shortages. In 2016, teacher shortage was a top issue for school boards ; in 2019, because of teacher shortages in virtually every state, the National School Boards Association (NSBA) is urging Congress to retain federal funding policies that provide funding for states and districts to recruit and retain talented teachers and effective school leaders.

Teacher shortages occur for many reasons, and how a school district addresses the problem depends on understanding why it exists, in what areas and which groups of students are most affected by it. In 2016, the Center for Public Education (CPE), the research arm of NSBA, examined three problematic points along the teacher pipeline, namely initial preparation, recruitment and retention. Sadly, all along there are holes all along the path that lead to teacher shortages in subject areas (e.g., math), school level (e.g., high schools) and instructional type (e.g., special education).

“School boards have a responsibility to make sure students have access to effective teachers in every class who have the relevant skills for their assignment,” the CPE report state. But teacher shortages have become an urgent issue that encumbers school leaders in the fulfillment of their responsibilities. The latest trend of teacher supply and demand shows that the supply — enrollment and completion of teacher preparation programs — is plummeting, whereas the demand of school districts for teachers goes up rapidly. Thus, we propose three steps that school leaders can take to ameliorate the situation caused by teacher shortages.

Supply — Enrollment and Completion of Teacher Preparation

Recent federal data shows that teacher supply is still declining nationwide. As shown in Figure 1, enrollment in teacher preparation programs decreased by 39% from 2010 to 2017, and completion of teacher prep programs went down 31%. The national picture is gloomy — the number of candidates who want to go into teaching is down sharply.

Figure 1. Trends of teacher preparation enrollment and completion: 2010-2017

A graph showing the total number of enrollees in teacher preparation programs going down between 2001 and 2017. Total number of completers also declines throughout those years but at a lesser rate

Data source: Title II Report, includes states and territories. Enrollees include all state-approved teacher preparation programs, traditional, and university-based and non-university-based alternative programs.

The picture painted by state-level data is also discouraging. For five years (2013-17), about 90% of states (including the District of Columbia) experienced a decline in the enrollment of teacher preparation programs (Figure 2). States such as Kentucky, Pennsylvania, New Mexico and Michigan witnessed a big shrinkage (over 50%) in the enrollment.

Although five states (i.e., Texas, Utah, Florida, Minnesota and Nevada) enrolled more teacher candidates, the completion rate did not increase. On the contrary, the number of teacher candidates who completed the programs declined in these states. It should be noted that the enrollment increase may be attributed to demographic change and the advocacy of diversity in the teaching workforce. For instance, in Texas, compared with 2013, the number of male teacher candidates increased by 18%; Hispanic/Latino, 0.1%; Asian, 22%; African American, 67%; two or more races, 44%.

Figure 2. Five-year change in teacher preparation enrollment: 2013-17

A map of the united states showing five-year change in teacher preparation enrollment. Most states show a negative change, but a few show a positive change. Texas shows the most positive change.

Data source: Title II Report, includes states and territories. Enrollees include all state-approved teacher preparation programs, traditional, and university-based and non-university-based alternative programs.

Demand — Teacher Vacancies and Uncertified Teachers

While the number of teacher candidates who enroll or complete teacher preparation programs is declining drastically across the nation, the demand for teachers in school districts is growing fast. In 2016, the California School Boards Association surveyed over 200 school districts and found they were experiencing alarming rates of teacher shortages. In 2018, researchers from Indiana State University reported that out of the 220 districts that responded to their survey, 91% reported experiencing a teacher shortage, with most feeling the pinch in science, math and special education.

“It’s killing us,” one superintendent said in describing the poor situation in his school district caused by teacher shortages. School district leaders in New Mexico had to hire substitute teachers and uncertified teachers to fill hundreds of vacant teaching positions. In some districts in Illinois, severe teacher shortages are forcing school leaders to employ more noncertified and out-of-the-field teachers to fill the gap when the 2019-2020 school year starts in August.

In most cases, state laws specify that uncertified teachers can be hired or assigned only if a fully certified teacher is not available. According to the Learning Policy Institute (LPI), a non-profit education research organization, only eight states reported unfilled teacher vacancies (about 6,500 each year), and almost all states employ a considerable number of teachers not fully certified for their teaching assignments. Nationwide, it is estimated that over 100,000 uncertified teachers work in public schools each year.

Fixing the Holes — 3 Ways for School Leaders to Act

The decline in teacher supply brings about a dearth of effective and high-quality teachers, which seriously affects the quality and accountability of schools. Evidence shows that because of teacher shortages, school districts are leaving classrooms vacant, canceling courses, increasing class sizes and staffing classrooms with substitute and out-of-field teachers. The holes in the teacher pipeline need to be fixed, and here are three approaches that school leaders can take.

Be advocates of teachers. According to a survey by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, deans of colleges of education said that the number one reason for the enrollment drop was the perception of teaching as an undesirable career. Young people do not choose teaching careers because they want to pursue high-paying jobs; effective teachers do not choose to stay in low-performing schools because they feel stressed out. These factors seem out of school leaders’ control. Yet what school leaders can do is advocate for teachers, improve their work conditions and develop positive relationships with teacher candidates and local education colleges.

Advocating for teachers also includes creating supportive and inclusive work environments. School board members can always find a way to communicate with stakeholders in the community to improve teachers’ benefits and compensations. In the Federal Hocking School District in Ohio, the board of education successfully negotiated with the local teacher organization, kept raising teachers’ pay and made great efforts to keep teachers’ salary competitive in the local area. A board member says, “as the financial picture has improved, we are happy to negotiate more appropriate raises.”

Share data with teacher colleges. The CPE researchers suggested that “teacher shortages are ultimately local.” For instance, one district may be scrambling to find bilingual teachers for its growing population of English Language Learners , whereas the community next door may have an older elementary school staff who are retiring in greater numbers each year. However, lack of information exchange between school districts and teacher colleges often leads to a mismatch between teacher supply and teacher demand.

To solve the mismatch, school districts need to share updated data with teacher preparation providers and inform them what types of teachers the district needs and what knowledge/skills teachers should have in the classroom. “Better aligning districts’ needs and colleges’ outputs could solve teacher shortages,” said Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality. In general, data transparency prompts higher education institutes to develop a community focus when preparing pre-service teachers and increase the hiring pool for school districts.

“Grow” your own teachers through partnerships. When school leaders are trapped in a no quick solution to teacher shortages, a way to balance supply and demand is for school districts to stand up and assert their needs. However, this action is not enough. School districts need to explore partnerships with teacher preparation providers and grow their own pools of candidates through cooperative teacher education programs.

More teacher colleges are developing partnerships with school districts that serve disadvantaged students so that teacher candidates can gain experience in diverse settings. School districts should take this opportunity, mentoring teacher candidates and developing emotional bonds. This programmatic investment is often a way to attract and retain effective teachers. For instance, like many small rural school districts, the Federal Hocking Schools are challenged by teacher turnover, but in 2016-17, the district recruited more than 10 high-quality teachers and specialists thanks to the partnership and cooperative teacher education program with Ohio University.

In summary, fixing the holes in the teacher pipeline is imperative for school leaders, as they need effective teachers to ensure that all students have access to a quality education. Meeting this challenge may not be easy, but it is feasible.

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