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Is There a Teacher Shortage? It's Anyone's Guess

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The debate rages.

Last winter, the National Education Association announced that "public schools in the United States are facing a severe teacher shortage.''

But the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics weighed in with a decidedly different view.

"Indications ... are that no shortage of teachers will develop,'' a bureau analyst wrote, shortly after the N.E.A. released its report.

The American Federation of Teachers, the RAND Corporation, the National Center for Education Information, and numerous other players on the education stage have also weighed in on one side or the other.

The problem, according to many experts, is that there is not enough information to know which view is correct.

Despite the rush of media attention given to the teacher shortage in the past few years, data on the subject are so inadequate that a recent report by the National Academy of Sciences calls it the "statistical dark.''

Asked to describe the data on which people are basing their projections, Leo Eiden, a senior program analyst with the federal Center for Education Statistics, said, "There are holes big enough to drive Mack trucks through.''

More than half of the states collect some kind of data on teacher supply and demand, experts estimate. But fewer than a dozen conduct any sophisticated analyses.

Both state and federal data bases--and the interpretations based on them--have been trounced by critics as being grossly inadequate.

The federal government and many state governments do not report data on teacher supply and demand by geographic regions or subject areas. Neither do they know precisely how many certified or uncertified people are teaching particular classes from year to year, or how many teachers are misassigned at any point in time. And they do not keep detailed information on where the new teachers hired come from.

In addition, experts say, many state data bases are not automated or centralized to provide easy access to information. Most districts do not keep track of how their hiring plans change during the year, based on supply and demand. And no one knows the effects of teacher migration on estimates of supply.

Moreover, the very source of the information, school administrators and teachers, may not be providing accurate, consistent data. Responses may vary based on how and when the questions are asked. (See story, page 15.)

In the absence of complete and reliable data, conclusions are being drawn on what experts describe as disparate "bits and pieces'' of information, anecdotes, and "personal beliefs.''

"We are very much concerned about the erroneous conclusions that are going to be made,'' said Mr. Eiden.

The Academy's 1987 interim report on teacher supply and demand, commissioned by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Education Department, cautioned that "fuzzy concepts and an absence of agreed-upon terminology'' are fueling the controversy.

At the heart of the debate lie seemingly irreconcilable opinions about "quality'' and human behavior: Who is qualified to teach? And what, if anything, will attract different groups of people to the profession?

16,000 Anecdotes

Based on estimates from the Center for Education Statistics, most agree that at minimum the nation will need to hire some 200,000 teachers a year for the next five years.

The debate really centers around beliefs about whether that need can be met.

In addition, everyone agrees that there are current spot shortages in certain geographic areas and in certain subjects, and that this situation is likely to continue. But they disagree about how severe these shortages are.

The fact that teacher supply and demand appears to vary so widely from state to state and from district to district adds to the confusion.

Contradictory reports of a severe shortage in one location and a surplus in another could both be correct--and neither could provide a complete picture of the national scene.

"There are 16,000 different situations, and it's fair to say that no two are alike,'' said Dorothy M. Gilford, study director for the Academy's committee on national statistics. "This is why you get such different perceptions.''

Said Mr. Eiden: "The anecdotal information you've been acquiring, is it true? Could be. But trying to jump from that to a number--it can't be documented.''

"Taking local situations and trying to generalize will create problems, and it can't be done.''

Politics and Money

In the absence of figures that everyone can agree on, politics and money are playing a large part in shaping projections of supply and demand.

Thus far, both national teachers' unions are predicting serious teacher shortages in the future, as is the RAND Corporation's center for the study of the teaching profession. In contrast, the Labor Department and C. Emily Feistritzer, a private education analyst, have insisted that no national shortage exists or is pending. That view has been endorsed by Secretary of Education William J. Bennett.

According to Arthur E. Wise, director of the RAND center, "To say that we have a crisis coming means that we must do something serious. So depending upon whether your main mission in life is the preservation of the status quo or your main mission is to try to bring about major change colors how you look at the facts.''

"Those people who want to bring about change may have some reason to pay attention to data that indicate a problem,'' he said. "People who are more conservative, who want to believe that we can maintain the system as it currently is without infusing more money, have an incentive to see that there's no problem.''

Constance F. Citro, study director for the Academy's committee on national statistics, agreed: "What it comes down to here is money. Do we want to spend money, or do we want not to spend money? Bringing out numbers can help make a case for or against that.''

Said Debra Gerald, a mathematical statistician with the Center for Education Statistics: "Unfortunately, to try and explain teacher supply and demand, the public has tried to simplify very, very complex situations. We often get into trouble.

"Supply and demand is not a simple topic; it is a complex topic. You've got to be willing to discuss all the pieces.''


Developing better projections of teacher supply and demand is important for a number of reasons, experts say.

If people knew that there was a national shortage of teachers, for instance, it might sway them to enter the field. Similarly, if the shortage were severe enough, it might result in federal action--such as grants and other incentives to entice science majors to enter teaching.

National figures also help states know whether their problems are unique or part of a larger trend. This can, in turn, influence their policy decisions.

State-based information is even more important, according to analysts. States are the primary gatekeepers for teacher supply and demand. They determine teaching standards and provide incentives. And they are paying an increasingly large share of education costs.

In addition, most observers agree, the teacher labor market is largely state, regional, and local--not national--because teaching is not a particularly mobile profession.

Right now, no one knows what effects recent education-reform policies will have on the labor market. Accurate, reliable information to help policymakers shape their decisions is just not there.

But policies based on inadequate data, the Academy warns, "will be irrelevant at best and counterproductive at worst.''

Inflated predictions of future shortages, others say, could cause too many people to prepare to teach.

"You want to make sure that we don't tell millions of kids that there are going to be jobs out there, and then have them trained to be teachers and not be able to use them,'' said Peter M. Prowda, coordinator of research services for the Connecticut Department of Education.

'Not Too Tricky'

Projections of a shortage are based on two components: the anticipated demand for teachers, and the expected supply of teachers available to fill that demand.

Estimates of demand at both the national and state levels are based primarily on projected student enrollment and on teacher-student ratios.

"That's not too hard to do, because basically you figure out how many kids are going to be in school,'' said Richard J. Murnane, professor of education at Harvard University. "It's a little tricky to make predictions about class size, but once you've done that, it's multiplication.''

Almost everyone making national predictions relies on the estimate by the Center for Education Statistics that student enrollment will climb by approximately 2.5 percent each year from now until 1997.

Far trickier, everyone agrees, is estimating teacher supply.

According to the Academy, current estimates of teacher supply are "totally inadequate'' and "so inaccurate'' that they are "useless even in the short run.''

Teachers now in the classroom represent the bulk of teacher supply. The first part of the picture, therefore, is trying to project how many people will continue to teach from one year to the next and into the future.

To determine that figure, statisticians estimate the "attrition'' or "separation'' rate--the number of people who will leave teaching either for retirement or other reasons.

Until recently, the Center for Education Statistics has based its national projections on a 6 percent attrition rate, computed in 1969--a rate that some say is so old it could not possibly be correct.

In contrast, for 1983-84, the Bureau of Labor Statistics calculated an attrition rate for elementary and secondary teachers of roughly 9 percent.

According to Linda Darling-Hammond, director of RAND's education and human-resources program, the difference amounts to 500,000 teachers between now and 1992-93.

The federal center's projection that 1 million teachers will need to be hired between now and then--or 200,000 a year--rests on the 6 percent attrition rate. Ms. Darling-Hammond believes the correct number is closer to 1.5 million.

Although RAND favors the 9 percent figure--based on data it has gathered from a number of states--the Center for Education Statistics argues that it is too high.

According to center officials, the Labor Department included in its calculation all those who described themselves as teachers--including part-time personnel and private-school teachers--and this artificially inflated the results.

For these reasons, the Labor Department chose to use the 6 percent figure when it predicted that there would be no teacher shortage.

Estimates also differ on the question of whether the attrition rate will remain relatively stable or surge in the coming decade.

According to RAND officials, an aging teacher force--whose average age is now 41--means that the number of retirements will climb in the future. That fact, combined with an influx of new teachers, who have a traditionally higher turnover rate, could result in an increase in attrition within the next 10 years, they say.

But Daniel Hecker, a labor economist with the Bureau of Labor Statistics, disagrees.

"The present pool of teachers aged 45 and older is only slightly larger than it was in 1974,'' he wrote. "Therefore, the number of retirements in the next decade should be about the same as it was in the last one; no surge is likely.''

"So the average age has gone up,'' he said. "It is the number who are within 10 years of retirement that really counts.''

Although Mr. Hecker conceded that the retirement rate may increase after 1995, he noted that making projections more than 10 years into the future is risky.

Estimates of attrition at the state level vary from 4 percent to 12 percent, according to Ms. Gerald of the Center for Education Statistics. She also noted that each state's definition of attrition varies, as does the way it computes the figure. Many states do not publish attrition rates at all.

Recent studies also indicate that attrition rates vary by age, experience, and subject taught. Thus, using one rate to predict shortages across states, fields, or grade levels may not be accurate.

New Supply

After determining how many of today's teachers will leave the profession, the remainder of the supply estimate is based on the "new supply.'' This involves determining the willingness to teach of people not now doing so--a nearly impossible task at present.

Included in this pool are new graduates of teacher-education programs. It also theoretically includes: other newly certified graduates with non-education majors; those certified through emergency and alternative routes; people in other professions who may decide to become teachers; and certified teachers who left teaching for one reason or another or who never entered the profession.

"Each of these groups,'' notes the National Academy of Sciences report, "has a very different probability of being attracted to teaching under current conditions and of responding to particular policy initiatives aimed at attracting teachers. Yet virtually nothing is known about these differences.''

"Virtually none'' of the national or state models of teacher supply and demand provides a "serious analysis of these various types of potential teacher supply,'' it argues.

Fears of a teacher shortage have been fueled in recent years by projections from the Center for Education Statistics that the proportion of college graduates with a major in education has declined precipitously since the early 1970's.

Based on the center's figures, for example, the N.E.A. has concluded that "by 1993 the need for new teachers will exceed the number of new teacher graduates by 37 percent.''

But that figure may be misleading. For one thing, said Ms. Darling-Hammond of the RAND Corporation, many new teacher-training graduates never teach or become certified, and thus should not be included in the supply pool.

On average, she said, only about 75 percent of those trained to teach actually enter teaching.

More important, the supply of new teacher-training graduates may account for only a fraction of the total teacher supply.

Many states, for example, enable college graduates who major in subjects other than education to become certified as teachers, if they take the necessary "add on'' courses. This enlarges the supply pool of new teachers without prior experience.

Because the center's projections of teacher-training graduates repeatedly have been misconstrued to represent the entire supply of potential teachers, said Ms. Gerald, the center has decided to stop publishing the projections.

"It's a very important figure,'' she said, "but it is misused by people.''

The 'Phantom Workforce'

An even more controversial component of the supply equation, however, is the "reserve pool.'' This is the number of certified people who have left teaching or who have never taught. There is no national figure for how many people are in this pool.

In fact, so little is known about the reserve pool that one researcher has referred to it as a "phantom workforce.''

According to Mr. Hecker, divergent views about how large the reserve pool is, how quickly it can be replenished, and how likely these people are to return to teaching "are probably the major reason'' for the different estimates of teacher shortage.

Officials at the two teachers' unions say they do not believe people in the reserve pool are likely to return to teaching, unless the profession becomes substantially more attractive both in pay and working conditions.

"I just don't think this group is going to fill what I see as a very large void,'' said Jewell C. Gould, director of research for the American Federation of Teachers. "It may help us--I don't want to ignore it--but we don't see it as a replenishing source of teachers.''

Said Howard Carroll, a spokesman for the N.E.A.: "We don't see districts hiring from the huge pool of former teachers. If they were, we wouldn't have the present situation.''

"We are skeptical about these people coming back into the profession unless the working conditions are improved,'' he said.

This is particularly true, union officials suggest, because of expanding job opportunities for women and minorities, who may make up a large part of the reserve pool.

In contrast, Mr. Hecker and Ms. Feistritzer predict that large numbers of people in the reserve pool will return to teaching.

Mr. Hecker said: "A substantial proportion of those who leave are people who are leaving temporarily for a number of reasons. They are not permanent leavers, in that they come back after a period of time.''

In a retrospective study of Michigan teachers--based on data that followed the careers of newly hired teachers from 1972 through 1984--Harvard's Mr. Murnane found, for example, that one-fourth of those who were still in the teaching force 11 years after entry had left teaching for a while and then returned.

It now appears that a surprisingly large proportion of the new teachers hired each year are coming from the reserve pool.

"I don't think that's been appreciated until the last few years,'' said Stephen M. Barro, a consultant for the Academy's study and director of SMB Economic Research Inc. "In some states, more than half the 'new teachers' hired are former teachers.''

A Connecticut survey, for example, found that in September of last year, 76 percent of the newly hired public-school teachers had prior teaching experience. Figures for New York State are similar.

"I think the real concern,'' said Ms. Gilford of the Academy, "is that such a large number are being hired from that reserve pool, and we don't know when it is going to be exhausted. We don't know anything about it.''

The pool includes mothers on maternity leave; teachers who switched professions; those who disliked teaching and left; those who have moved out of state; people who have since retired; and people who lost their teaching jobs or failed to find one during periods of surplus. No one knows which, if any, subgroups will respond to increases in the demand for teachers or at what rate.

"Personal beliefs really come into play when you talk about the reserve pool,'' said Ms. Darling-Hammond. "[Mr. Hecker's] argument really rests entirely on his personal beliefs about the return rate, because there are no data.''

Who Qualifies?

Estimates of who might enter teaching beyond the "reserve pool'' are based on even less knowledge.

Both Mr. Hecker and Ms. Feistritzer consider all college graduates to be potential teachers--and therefore part of the supply pool. As the demand for teachers increases, they predict, many of these people will flock to teaching.

Mr. Hecker, in particular, points out that, given one-year teacher-education programs, any college graduate is at most one year away from a teaching certificate.

He also estimates that there are between 5 million and 6 million college graduates in jobs that do not require a college degree. "We're talking about a tremendous number of people,'' he said. "If the jobs were available, it is hard for me to believe that a substantial portion of them couldn't be attracted to teaching.''

In addition, Ms. Feistritzer notes, the proportion of adults with college degrees is increasing. In 1970, she said, 1 in 10 adults had a college degree. Today, 1 in 5 do, and that proportion is rising.

Others, including the leadership of the N.E.A. and the A.F.T., say it is unlikely that many college graduates will be attracted into teaching under present pay and working conditions. This is particularly true, they note, because the number of people in their late teens and early 20's will be decreasing, just as the competition for their services among public- and private-sector employers will be rising.

Ms. Feistritzer agreed that the 18- to 24-year-old population would continue to decline, but said that "the people who are going to college today are not just between 18 and 24.''

"We just have a much larger college-educated adult population that is far outstripping the young population and will continue to,'' she said."And I think this will, and already does, work to teaching's advantage.''

A Question of Quality

In large measure, the debate about who is in the teacher-supply pool centers on teacher quality, which many claim is at the crux of all disagreements.

"A bigger piece is the quality-supply interaction that most of these surveys can't get at or don't ask about,'' said Ms. Darling-Hammond of RAND. "You can always fill vacancies. Forty-six states have emergency-certification allowances. Another 27 have alternative-certification routes, which essentially greatly reduce the amount of teacher training necessary to walk into a classroom and teach.''

Ms. Feistritzer, she noted, "doesn't believe in certification as a measure of quality, so in her report, when she found massive use of uncertified teachers, she did not consider it an indicator of shortage. But you've got to use something.''

Said Ms. Feistritzer: "To equate certification with quality is misleading. The way we currently certify teachers does not give us any measure of a person's qualification to teach.''

"The biggest gap in the data base,'' she added, "is criteria for determining what constitutes competence to teach.''

The argument is a key one, said Mr. Barro, because the "supply of teachers is not a natural phenomenon; it's also determined by the rules that each state makes up'' regarding certification.

Agreed Mr. Wise of Rand: "How big the supply is depends on the definition of what a teacher is. That's also why you get different answers and opinions. You can create whole new pools of teachers instantly by dropping your requirements for the definition of a teacher, or changing the definition. If suddenly you define any college graduate as a potential teacher, then you have a large new pool of teachers.''

Because there are not good measures of what makes a "quality teacher,'' people tend to use proxies like certification and the misassignment of teachers to subjects other than those in which they are trained.

The N.E.A., for instance, has found that 17 percent of teachers say they spend some of their working hours teaching out of their major fields. About 8 percent say they are not fully certified for the subjects they teach, or have been hired under emergency certificates.

"We tie this information to the teacher-shortage problem,'' said Mr. Carroll, "because it indicates that districts do this because they can't find anybody else--they can't find fully qualified teachers.''

But others claim those figures are misleading. Teachers get misassigned for a variety of reasons that may not reflect actual shortages, they say. For example, districts with a small high-school population may find it financially impossible to hire a physics teacher to teach one class, and therefore assign a chemistry teacher to do it. Even if physics teachers were theoretically available to fill that slot, they would not be hired.

A survey of school administrators by the Center for Education Statistics found that "out of field'' teaching accounted for only 3.5 percent of all instructional time in the nation's schools. But that does not necessarily contradict the N.E.A. finding, according to the report's author, who said the two figures are not comparable.

The same survey, however, asserted that 96 percent of teachers were fully certified to teach in their "principal field of assignment'' under their state's certification laws--a finding that led the author to conclude that there was no national teacher shortage, except in isolated fields.

Markets and Behavior

What all models of teacher supply and demand fail to account for--whether they are considering members of the reserve pool or the larger pool of college graduates--are "market forces'' and how employment decisions are affected by the incentives and disincentives of teaching.

Henry Levin, a professor of education at Stanford University, said that "historically, the market really has been effective'' in balancing out problems of supply and demand. And he predicted that the way the market works "is going to cause a lot of the gap to close.''

"If it's going to be a crisis, it's going to be a mini-crisis rather than a major crisis,'' he said. "Most of the people doing the analyses don't really put much weight on economic factors. They're not economists.''

Already, he noted, "we are seeing natural market forces come into play. The only question is whether the shortage will be so large--so many people retiring in a given year--that it won't work itself out for a number of years.''

Mr. Barro agreed. "There's a tendency among people who talk about shortages to have an overly static view of the situation, as if teachers and prospective teachers didn't respond to changing circumstances.''

"I've argued not to try to count the supply of potential teachers right this minute,'' he said, "but instead to ask how many people would make themselves available to teach if circumstances changed in the future to make teaching more attractive. The models really don't allow for any adjustment mechanisms to work.''

They cannot, for example, predict how a 10 percent salary increase or a drop in certification requirements would affect people's decision to enter the profession.

"I think it's only recently that we've had some real economic studies of teacher supply, which try to look at the factors that influence individuals to think about being teachers, or applying to be teachers,'' Mr. Barro said. "It's a difficult technical problem, and there hasn't been much support for work of this kind.''

According to the Academy report, "warnings of impending teacher shortages that take no account of various market-adjustment mechanisms are unrealistic and misleading.''

Most current projections, it suggests, "consist of little more than plausible extrapolations of current conditions or historical trends.''

The report recommended that substantial work be done both to improve indicators of teacher quality and to advance researchers' understanding of how market forces affect teachers' behavior.

However, readily usable projections may be years away. "Given the absence of well-established supply-and-demand models in other educational fields,'' it states, "the probability of developing good models for teacher labor markets may be low.''

However, said Mr. Barro, even with the currently rough state projections, some states should be able to tell whether they have a short-term problem.

Mr. Prowda of Connecticut said that "the question is how far you want to fine-tune the market with policy decisions.''

"The models aren't there to handle it exactly,'' he said, "but we can get a red flag in front of my commissioner soon enough, so we can start some policy initiatives. If we take into account all the information that's there, put our heads together in some cooperative programs, we can regulate the market sufficiently.''

But, Mr. Barro added, "I don't know what I'd do if I were in a state where things were at the margin and it was a relatively close call,'' about whether a teacher shortage was coming.

"I'm glad I don't have that role to carry out.''

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