Education Commentary

What Constitutes a ‘Real’ Shortage of Teachers?

By Linda Darling-Hammond — January 14, 1987 9 min read

While the past several Septembers have found an increasing number of school districts, especially those in cities, unable to find qualified applicants for thousands of teaching vacancies, some recent reports have made headlines by concluding that there is no teacher shortage. And efforts to bring some sense to the confusing hodgepodge of available data on teacher supply and demand have become derailed by contrary allegations regarding the existence, severity, and pro~ able continuation of shortages.

These claims and counterclaims have taken on the quality of a schoolyard argument, which is especially unfortunate coming at a time when careful evidence and reasoned analysis on this unquestionably important policy problem are very much needed.

The problem is twofold. First, there is a lack of agreement on what constitutes a “real” shortage of teachers. As with the question, “Is there life after death?” the answer depends on who is asking and who is answering and what each would like to believe. What qualifications count? Do unfilled vacancies matter? Are city schools worth greater attention? Are mathematics, science, and foreign languages important? Is special education valuable? These are all questions that, if addressed, would affect the answer to the larger question: whether we do or do not have a teacher shortage.

Depending on what you believe, you will find it either reassuring or alarming to know, for example, that:

• (Only) 2 percent of teaching vacancies in 1983-84 were left unfilled (half of these were in central cities, which had a shortage rate four times higher than other districts).

• (Only) 12.4 percent of new hires were uncertified in that year.

• Most states report shortages in (only) science, mathematics, foreign languages, and special education.

More recent national data are not yet available, but at the start of the 1986 school year, shortages of certified candidates in New York City, Los Angeles, Houston, and Philadelphia alone totaled more than 5,000. Other districts, however, have reported no difficulty in finding qualified applicants.

A simple “yes” or “no” answer to the question of how severe shortages are and what they really mean does not exist.

Equally problematical is that, while questions about teacher supply and demand can be examined empirically, issues of teacher shortage are ultimately political. As with oil and other precious commodities, shortages grab the attention of policymakers and the public and, satisfying economists’ equations, cause prices to rise. If teacher shortages exist, then inducements to teaching must be found; if they can be discounted, the status quo can prevail.

However, unlike many other commodities, the definition of “teacher” is not static. With changes in certification and hiring standards, the supply of teachers can be altered at will so that, based on body counts at least, supply can always equal demand. Essentially, the competing claims about teacher shortages are arguments over the desirability of raising standards and salaries, on the one hand, or maintaining current conditions, on the other.

Emily Feistritzer’s recent report, “Teacher Crisis: Myth or Reality?” provides an example of how the debate has become oversimplified and politicized. The report provided the basis for stories in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Newsweek, all stating that no teacher shortage exists or is likely to materialize. The popular press must have based its headlines on Ms. Feistritzer’s statement on the first page of her report: “Contrary to predictions, there seems to be no problem finding enough qualified teachers to meet demand.” The reporters must have stopped reading there, for the remainder of the report gives no support for such a definitive conclusion.

About half of the 44 state officials Ms. Feistritzer surveyed said their states were experiencing or anticipating teacher shortages in some fields, usually mathematics, science, foreign languages, and special education; fully two-thirds said they issued emergency or temporary certificates to fill teaching vacancies. For those states that kept count, the total number of such certificates issued was more than 30,000 in 1985-86.

Among those she dismissed as having “no problem” in finding enough qualified teachers were Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maryland, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and West Virginia--all of whom reported, elsewhere in the report, sizable shortages expected to continue at all levels through at least the next five years. That the situation is confusing is borne out by the fact that some of Ms. Feistritzer’s respondents claimed no teacher shortages when their states’ own published analyses--not part of Ms. Feistritzer’s data base--have reported otherwise.

Clearly, conclusions about the current adequacy of teacher supply depend on the data sources used and the credibility ascribed to these data. Undermining her own conclusions, Ms. Feistritzer summarized this chapter of her report as follows: “The bottom line on the teacher-shortage issue is this: Nobody really knows. ‘Shortage’ means different thigns to different people. The data currently available are suspect, to say the least.” One might say the same about the conclusions being drawn from the data.

Indeed, the picture is mixed, and currently available data do not allow a perfect prognosis of what lies ahead. Although it is clear that enrollments are growing and the number of new teacher candidates has shrunk considerably since 1970, little else is obvious. While many large districts and some sunbelt states have experienced large shortfalls of teaching applicants for their growing vacancies in recent years, other states and districts--particularly those that had declining enrollments into the 1980’s--have not yet had an appreciable increase in teacher demand.

In some parts of the country, the supply of new teachers has started to climb after a decade of decline; in others, new teacher candidates are still a small and shrinking fraction of the college population. A variety of demographic and economic factors interact with state policies to produce substantial reserve pools of teachers in some teaching fields and labor markets, while leaving others bereft.

The question of what lies ahead is still more complicated. Based on an estimated 6 percent annual turnover rate, the U.S. Education Department’s statistics project that the nation will need to hire about 1,080,000 new teachers between 1987 and 1992. This estimate, though, is based on data about teacher-turnover rates last collected in 1969, when the composition of the teaching force and labor-market conditions were quite different than they are today.

More recent data from the Census Bureau’s Current Population Surveys placed the teacher-turnover rate in 1984 at slightly more than 9 percent. If this estimate is correct, the number of new teachers needed over this time period will exceed 1,500,000. If the current number of teacher-education graduates were to continue at slightly more than 100,000 annually, the supply of new teachers between 1987 and 1992 would total about 650,000, leaving anywhere from 400,000 to 900,000 vacancies to be filled from other sources.

Many questions remain. Optimists will point out that recent reports suggest an upswing in the proportion of college students expressing an interest in teaching; that teacher salaries have increased in the past few years; and that there are large numbers of people once certified to teach who are not currently in the classroom and can be called back into service. Belief that these factors will fill the gap--and reliance on the old 6 percent turnover estimate--led Dan Hecker, a staff member of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, to predict the most recent issue of Occupational Outlook Quarterly that there would be no teacher shortages.

Pessimists will counter that:

• On average, only about 75 percent of those trained to teach in fact enter teaching; that the number of college students is expected to decline slightly over the next several years.

• Huge increases in the share of graduates going into teaching are unlikely, because competition among occupations for college graduates will increase to fill the 6,000,000 new professional and technical jobs anticipated for the next decade.

• The potential reserve pool available to teaching has already been depleted in the past few years.

This kind of analysis motivated the 1986 reports of the Carnegie Task Force on Teaching as a Profession, the National Governors’ Association, and the Education Commission of the States, calling for dramatic reform of the teaching profession.

Interpreting these indicators in a comprehensible fashion is made more difficult by the fact that few states collect data on all of the key components of teacher supply and demand. The National Education Association discontinued its supply-and-demand research in 1980, and the U.S. Education Department is reviving its statistical data base on supply and demand, but new data will not be available until next year. That is about the time that past projections have suggested more widespread shortages might develop, so perhaps at least we will know whether they have arrived when they are due.

Projections, of course, have unavoidable shortcomings. They are based on the extrapolation of past trends and conditions, and cannot fully predict how policy changes man influence either supply or demand. Since “shortages” are nearly entirely dependent on hiring and certification policies, they are even less susceptible to accurate prediction.

So, at present, we are left with indications of shortages in some teaching fields and locations; upswings in demand; signs that the shrinking supply of new teachers may have bottomed out; and a volatile policy environment that will complicate projections.

Although complete answers to this puzzle are not likely to be available within the next couple of months—or even years--the dilemma facing educators will not wait until more complete data are available. Should school officials adjust to current spot shortages by raising class sizes, lowering standards, or canceling courses when teachers are hard to find, anticipating that the market will adjust itself? Or should they tackle a reformulation of teacher education, certification, compensation, and job structures to make teaching more attractive and teachers better trained? Given a certain probability of error, they must decide what they will believe.

Though opponents and proponents of teaching reform have justified their views by their beliefs about teacher shortages, the real debate should be conducted on educational grounds. What policies and practices are most likely to strengthen the education received by students in schools?

Meanwhile, it is crucial that analysts present as thorough a picture as can be mustered, and that the drive for better information and better education not be influenced by the politics of teacher shortage.

A version of this article appeared in the January 14, 1987 edition of Education Week