Even as Gaps in Data Are Filled, Teacher-Supply Debate Lingers

By Ann Bradley — September 19, 1990 14 min read

While several recent studies suggest that teachers may not yet be leaving the profession in the large numbers that have been forecast for the 1990s, concern over whether the nation has an adequate supply of, qualified teachers has by no means abated.

“The question is how disparate is supply and demand,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of curriculum and teaching at Columbia University’s Teachers College, “not whether there’s a gap.” What appears to be happening, experts who are eligible for retirement are choosing to remain on the job longer as a result of the substantial salary gains most experienced during the 1980s.

At the same time, they said, evidence is mounting that the number of teachers trained in schools of education is on the rise, due in part to the increased attention given to making teaching a more attractive profession. And recent studies show that the teaching ranks are being swelled by large numbers of teachers returning to the profession after a hiatus from the classroom and by a much smaller, though growing, number of individuals entering teaching through an alternative route.

C. Emily Feistritzer, an independent education researcher who has maintained that no widespread shortages will occur, recently weighed in on the subject with a new report portraying teaching as a ''revolving-door profession” that is attracting more people than the number choosing to leave. Several newspapers printed the story, with one headline proclaiming: “Fears of Teacher Shortage Fading.”

Last spring, the National Center for Education Statistics released data from a new set of integrated surveys indicating that the number of teachers leaving their jobs may be much lower than some researchers had assumed.

“It is clear that several things have happened which, in general, would suggest that the crisis is not quite what we thought it was,” said Willis D. Hawley,director of the Center for Educational Policy at Vanderbilt University’s Institute for Public Policy Studies.

The question of whether the nation now faces--or will in the next few years face--a shortage of qualified teachers remains a subject of some debate, however.3

It is complicated by the fact that some states and school districts report surpluses of teachers, while others are actively recruiting them.And teachers who are members of minority groups, or who teach subjects such as special education, mathematics, and science, remain in short supply.

But Mr. Hawley and others caution that focusing on national estimates of supply and demand threatens to overshadow concerns about the quality of the teachers who work in inner-city and rural schools, where qualified teachers are hardest to find and students are hardest to teach.

“There is not likely to be a crisis if our definition is, ‘Do we have enough bodies to fill the classrooms,”’ Mr. Hawley added, “and if we’re not fussy about who they are or what fields they’re in.”

The fact that at least one-third of the nation’s current teachers are 45 or older, coupled with the movement of a"baby boomlet” of students through the schools, has prompted researchers and lawmakers to pay close attention in recent years to the teacher supply-and-demand equation. (See Education Week, June 24, 1987.

Most experts agree that the total demand for new public- and private-school teachers during the next decade is expected to be at least 2 mi lion, or 200,000 teachers a year. Some believe the number might be as high as 2.5 million, which means that as many teachers are likely to be hired within the next 10 years as are currently teaching today.

Heeding warnings about a shortage of qualified teachers, lawmakers have launched several initiatives designed to entice teachers into the field.

In 33 states, an estimated 12,000 people have become licensed to teach in the past five years through alternative-certification programs that do not require prospective teachers to have graduated from approved teacher-education programs.

At the national level, the Congress is considering bills that would, among other things, provide scholarship money to people interested in becoming teachers.

And a national advertising campaign called Recruiting New Teachers, which promotes teaching as a career, has logged 350,000 calls in two years.

The single greatest predictor of the demand for new teachers is the number of teachers who leave the profession each year. In addition,such factors as projected student enrollment, pupil-teacher ratios, and the courses required for graduation in a particular school district deter mine how many new teachers will need to be hired.

The other side of the equation-- the supply of teachers--is made up of a variety of complex factors, including the number of students graduating from teacher-education programs, certified teachers re-entering the job market after a hiatus from the classroom, and teachers who are certified under emergency procedures when no other qualified candidates can be found.

The willingness of people employed in other professions who could become certified to teach under “alternate routes” is also a factor--and a major source of controversy about the potential supply of teachers because of the uneven quality of such programs.

The Association for School, College, and University Staffing report ed in the 1990 edition of an annual survey of teacher supply and demand that 14 of the 45 teaching fields studied suffered from “some shortage” of teachers.

The survey of school and university placement officials, who are asked to describe conditions in their area, reported “considerable short age” in bilingual education, various types of special education, and speech pathology. Some shortage was reported in physics, mathematics, computer science, Spanish, chemistry, and counseling at both the elementary and secondary level, among other specialties.

Alaska reported the greatest teacher shortage, followed by the Southeastern, South-Central, and Western regions of the country. Demand for teachers was lowest in the Great Lakes, Northeastern, and id-Atlantic regions.

The survey also noted that respondents were concerned about the ‘growing immobility of a large percentage of education graduates.” Newly graduated teachers of traditional age expressed a preference for remaining in the area where they had studied, the survey reported. Non-traditional students entering teaching and former teachers returning to the profession also “tend to be unable to relocate,” the survey noted.

“While this trend may increase the number of candidates available 4n some areas,” the report concludes, “it does little for remote rural areas, projected high-growth areas, or inner-city schools.”

Researchers concerned with teacher supply also look to the use of emergency credentials and alternative-certification programs for evidence of shortages. In a recent nationwide study of alternative-certification programs, Ms. Feistritzer found that one-third of the 33 state programs tied the use of such programs to teacher short ages. (See Education Week, June 20, 1990. She estimates that approximately 12,000 teachers have been certified through such programs in the past five years.

“Since shortages of teachers have not materialized in anywhere near the numbers forecast a few years ago,” she writes, “many of these pro grams have turned out few, if any, alternatively certified teachers.” But Ms. Darling-Hammond, an authority on the topic, notes that many programs are limited by the number of candidates who can be trained. In addition to teachers who have entered the profession through the alternative route, Ms. Darling-Hamond estimates that 20,000 teachers are hired each year under procedures to provide unlicensed teachers with emergency credentials.

In a paper prepared for the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, she writes that counts of districts’ use of unlicensed teachers “underestimate the extent of teacher shortages.”

The false picture emerges, she says, because districts typically respond to shortages of qualified applicants by reassigning teachers from other fields to teach courses, increasing teachers’ workloads and lass sizes, canceling course offerings, and limiting enrollment in upper-level classes.

The fact that districts in large urban areas with high percentages of disadvantaged students are the most likely to employ poorly trained teachers lies at the heart of the question about teacher quality, Ms. Darling-Hammond suggests.

“The real national issue is, what are we going to do to make sure all kids get qualified teachers,” she said.

Mr. Hawley of Vanderbilt University agrees.

“While it is not running rampant throughout the country, I took a look at Emily’s data, and it is clear that there is a consistent movement toward the use of alternative certification and liberalization of alternative-certification rules which would lead one to believe that there are more people taking that route,” he said. “Of course, they reduce the shortage, but the point is that those teachers are often the teachers who will be teaching the kids who need most experienced teachers.”

In past years, researchers have been frustrated by the lack of adequate information on which to base predictions about teacher supply and demand.

However, a new set of surveys conducted by the NCES is expected to provide the most comprehensive information ever gathered on the nation’s teaching force.

The results of the first Schools and Staffing Survey, conducted in 1987- 88, indicate that 4.1 percent of the teachers surveyed left the profession that year--a much lower attrition rate than some experts had predicted would be found.

But experts say much more information about the demographics and behavior of the teaching force is needed before accurate predictions about teacher turnover can be made.

Ms. Darling-Hammond said that the SASS survey’s attrition number"doesn’t tell you anything about supply and demand in the future.” In addition, she said, the attrition rate was derived from a survey of principals, not of the teachers who actually left the profession. The best indicator of turnover would be detailed information about the age of the teaching force, coupled with data on the numbers of teachers of different ages who leave the profession, she suggested.

A follow-up survey of teachers,which was conducted during the 1988-89 school year and is scheduled to be released in January, will provide such information.

Also still to be released are the “public-use tapes” from the sass survey, which will enable researchers to do their own studies using the data base. Confidentiality requirements imposed by the Congress have delayed the release of the tapes, which contain detailed information on individual teachers, administrators, schools, and school districts.

In a recent survey of teachers,"Profile of Teachers in the U.S. 1990,” Ms. Feistritzer found that 74 percent of the teachers responding planned to be teaching in five years. (See Education Week, Sept. 5, 1990.) Eight percent of the 3,201 elementary and secondary teachers in public and private schools who participated in the survey indicated that they planned to be retired by 1995, while the rest who said they would leave teaching intended to pursue other careers or stop working.

Ms. Feistritzer concluded from this finding that “teacher attrition is not expected to be high,” but Ms. Darling- Hammond countered that the findings indicate the opposite to her.

“It means 25 percent of the teachers may not be here in five years,” she noted. “That’s a big number.”

Ms. Feistritzer also found that teachers are in high demand: 28 per cent of all the public-school teachers she surveyed had been hired since 1985. Of those new hires, 45 percent reported that they were returning to teaching after taking a break.

“This survey shows that we’re bringing in a higher proportion of new teachers than are leaving on the other end,” Ms. Feistritzer said in an interview. “It doesn’t look like a terribly serious overall supply problem.”

Ms. Darling-Hammond said many people believe that teachers who may be qualified to retire are choosing not to do so now because their earnings in their final years of work are used to calculate their base retirement pay. Acccording to the American Federation of Teachers, the average teach

ers’ salary increased 78.5 percent from 1980-81 to 1989-90.

“The teachers are getting old,"Darling-Hammond said. “It’s really just a question of when they will choose to retire. It’s like death and taxes. It has to come.”

Jewell Gould, director of research for the AFT, said he believes that about 6 percent of the teaching force leaves the profession each year. In any case, he said, the impending retirements make it imperative for schools to rethink the way they are organized since it is unlikely they will be able to find large numbers of qualified teachers to staff schools in traditional ways.

“We have to find new ways to provide information to kids,” Mr. Gould asserted.

The situation in Philadelphia illustrates what may be happening else where in the country, he added. Although 2,000 of the city’s 11,000 teachers are eligible for retirement, only 24 chose to retire last year. Turn over in the district in general was lower than it had been for a decade.

Mr. Gould attributed the situation to teachers’ desire to collect the ! salary increases stipulated in the city’s teaching contract, which does # not expire until 1992.

Like Ms. Feistritzer’s study, the & sass findings also include information on the number of teachers who ( are returning to the classroom after taking a break from teaching.

The survey found that schools’third-largest source of new hires was , former teachers returning to work in - schools. They made up 15.6 percent of . the public and 22.9 percent of the private teachers hired that year. The largest source of new hires was teachers transferring from other schools; the 2 second-largest was new hires who had not taught before.

The size of the pool of such certified teachers who might return to 6 teaching, commonly called the “reserve pool,” remains an unknown factor in calculations of teacher supply. Some experts worry that the large numbers of teachers who have returned to teaching from this pool make it unlikely that it can continue to supply many teachers.

In her paper for the national teaching board, Ms. Darling-Hammond notes that the “most eager"members of the reserve pool already have returned to teaching. It will take greater inducements to lure those who have not done so away from other careers, she warns.

The demographics of the labor market also play a role, she writes.As the competition increases in the future among employers seeking to hire young college graduates--who will make up a smaller portion of the population--these graduates will be less likely to choose teaching.

“Ex-teachers (along with current and prospective teachers will have more lucrative options in the 1990s than they had in the 1980s,” she writes.

But Ms. Feistritzer also uses demographics to bolster her own theory, arguing that the pool of people who could be drawn into teaching is quite large because there are now many more educated adults than there are children who need to be taught.

“My bottom line has to do with the demographic shift in this society,"Ms. Feistritzer said. “The population is just so radically different than the last time we faced this shortage.”

Meanwhile, evidence is increasing that teaching is once again attracting academically talented students to schools of education.

While the number of college students preparing to become teachers plummeted from the early 1970s throughout the early 1980s--as did the number of students of high academic ability enrolled in teacher-education courses--a recent survey found that the number of students enrolled in teacher-training programs increased 61 percent from 1985 to 1988. (See Education Week,March 7, 1990.

The most dramatic gains--a 200 percent increase--were found in the number of students with bachelor’s degrees who were enrolled in teacher-training programs.

“From the supply side, what we’ve seen is a response by schools of education and phenomenal growth in the number of prospective teachers,"said David G. Imig, executive director of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education. “Much of this has been at the post-baccalaureate level.”

Mr. Imig said the most encouraging aspect of the increased enrollments is that they came after many schools of education raised their admissions standards. In some higher-education institutions, he said, it is now harder to gain admission to the education school than any other program.

“There is a much better group of young people coming into teaching,” Mr. Imig said. “They are also much more mature.”

Observers said there are several reasons that teaching appears to be a more desirable career, including the emphasis on making it a more professional career and the fact that teaching is seen as a secure occupation in times of economic uncertainty.

In her paper, Ms. Darling-Hammond notes that the relatively new policies of using test scores and grade-point averages to screen entry into and continuation in teacher-education programs and other factors appear to have begun to reverse the previous patterns.

Substantial federal efforts to provide financial aid for prospective teachers could build on the demonstrated shift in attitudes, she suggested.

“There is definitely a resurgence of interest in teaching,” she said. “I really don’t think we have to offer little or no training to get people into teaching. We really have to bite the bullet as to whether to invest in their preparation.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 19, 1990 edition of Education Week as Even as Gaps in Data Are Filled, Teacher-Supply Debate Lingers