Opinion Blog


Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Did a War on Teachers Lead to New Shortages?

By Guest Blogger — February 08, 2016 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Note: Joshua Cowen is Associate Professor of Education Policy in the College of Education at Michigan State University and you can follow him on Twitter at @joshcowenMSU. Katharine Strunk is Associate Professor of Education and Policy in the Rossier School of Education and the Sol Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California.

Thanks for having me, Rick; long-time listener, first-time caller. I’m going to sound off this week about school choice and teacher quality. To kick things off today I’ve asked my friend and collaborator Katharine Strunk from the University of Southern California to help me think through some pressing questions on teacher-related reforms and teacher shortages. So, off we go:

After years of struggling with budget cuts, public school districts are finally emerging from recession-induced constraints on expenditures. Until very recently, news headlines from across the country bemoaned school districts being forced to resort to extensive teacher layoffs. But now we hear the happy news that districts are hiring again and we need teachers. WE NEED TEACHERS, except now there are none to be had! Suddenly, it seems we are in the midst of a massive teacher shortage. (See here to read the sounding of the alarm by The New York Times.) How can this be?

How can this be? This is a good question, and one that has a lot of folks speculating about potential causes. Today we want to think about just a few of them, and we want to start with the one getting the most press: Teachers are unhappy, they’re leaving the classroom, and it’s all because of all the reforms we’ve layered on public schools and teachers in the last decade or so. In fact, google the words “war on teachers,” and the search results display news items, blog posts, speeches and other commentary on the high-profile policy reforms to the teaching profession taking place across the country. The line of thinking tying these changes to teacher shortages goes like this: the shortages “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.”

Despite the fact that many reforms have only recently occurred, and continue to develop alongside other major changes to the education landscape—the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), for example—stories abound of their impact on teachers and teaching. Many come from teachers themselves, some of whom have aired what amount to public resignation letters explaining why they no longer can work in public schools.

These are compelling individual testimonies, but on the whole can we really say that the teacher shortage is happening in large part because policymakers have made the teaching profession untenable?

The answer: we don’t really know. To be sure, some teachers are leaving for these reasons, as the posts above show. But as policy analysts, we need to consider other possibilities at the same time. For example, one explanation is that the teaching workforce has grown steadily older over the last few years, in part because younger people may be finding other work, but also because the structure of teacher pay and compensation remains heavily back-loaded in favor of later-career teachers. Older teachers will retire sooner than their younger colleagues, perhaps at rates that exceed our ability to hire more.

The economy may also be to blame. Over the last five or more years, teachers experienced serious threats to their job stability due to increased numbers of Reductions in Force and layoffs during the Great Recession. This likely makes teaching a less attractive profession to teachers who value stability.

It’s also important to realize that the shortage has been percolating for a very long time and may have actually been mitigated by the economic downturn and reduced hiring rates. For instance, a recent report shows that in California, teacher preparation programs have been producing steadily fewer teachers since 2002, well before the current “anti-teacher” policies were introduced, and barely after the No Child Left Behind Act went into effect. Fewer people seem to be choosing a teaching career. Enrollment at teacher preparation programs has fallen... over at least the past decade.

Which leads to a more basic question: Is the teacher shortage even new? Today, it’s the scale and location of the teacher shortages that are pressing. Until recently—over the past two decades, at least—teacher shortages have been most common in disadvantaged schools. Indeed, among the most consistent predictors of a teacher’s exit have been the demographic characteristics of students in the school he or she teaches. Unfortunately, low-income, minority students and students with special needs tend to lose their teachers more frequently, with the most effective teachers who leave moving to more advantaged areas. These students have experienced teacher shortages for a long time. It just hasn’t been front page news. Even today, there are real teacher shortages, but not everywhere, and not for every subject. The simple truth is that in many parts of the country, we don’t have enough teachers to teach many of the kids who need them the most, and we haven’t for a very long time.

But there is some sunshine through the clouds: more than a million-and-a-half new teachers are slated to enter the field in the next few years, and although some observers have worried about declining quality as much as quantity, it’s possible that many of those new teachers are some of our best and brightest. A few months ago, a new study found that the academic ability of new teachers has steadily increased since 1999. And over the summer, another paper showed that teachers hired during the Great Recession were actually more effective than those hired earlier.

None of this is to suggest that teacher-related policy reforms have had no impact on individual teacher decisions to exit public schools or avoid the profession in the first place. The point is that we have yet to fully understand the extent to which this is true, much less what we can do about it. But we can use the data researchers, states and districts are gathering to help us uncover the causes of current trends in the teacher labor force and, importantly, to help design solutions. And then we can use evidence rather than anecdote in discussions of where to go next.

--Joshua Cowen and Katharine Strunk

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Evaluating Equity to Drive District-Wide Action this School Year
Educational leaders are charged with ensuring all students receive equitable access to a high-quality education. Yet equity is more than an action. It is a lens through which we continuously review instructional practices and student
Content provided by BetterLesson
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Attendance Awareness Month: The Research Behind Effective Interventions
More than a year has passed since American schools were abruptly closed to halt the spread of COVID-19. Many children have been out of regular school for most, or even all, of that time. Some
Content provided by AllHere

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Schools Get the Brunt of Latest COVID Wave in South Carolina
In the past few weeks, South Carolina has set records for COVID-19 hospitalizations and new cases have approached peak levels of last winter.
4 min read
Two Camden Elementary School students in masks listen as South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster talks about steps the school is taking to fight COVID-19, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, in Camden, S.C. McMaster has adamantly and repeatedly come out against requiring masks in schools even as the average number of daily COVID-19 cases in the state has risen since early June. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
Education More States Are Requiring Schools to Teach Native American History and Culture
Advocates say their efforts have gained some momentum with the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice since the killing of George Floyd.
3 min read
A dancer participates in an intertribal dance at Schemitzun on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in Mashantucket, Conn., Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Connecticut and a handful of other states have recently decided to mandate students be taught about Native American culture and history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP