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Education Opinion

Why a Teacher ‘Shortage’?

By Peter Greene — August 12, 2015 4 min read
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August is apparently our month to contemplate a teacher shortage. Or reports of a teacher shortage. Or a completely fabricated teacher shortage. The issue has had play all the way from the blogoverse to the New York Times to the Ed Week blog department.

What nobody seems to be able to answer is why, exactly, we’re having this conversation? What is causing the shortage-- or at least the repeated reporting of one. What is the actual problem?

It’s Teachers Bailing Out

One repeated argument is that the shortage isn’t anything special, but teachers and reform-resistors are exaggerating in order to argue that bad policies are driving teachers out of the field. Every anguished “Why I Am Leaving Teaching” column is just a crowbar with which to whack away at the reformster machinery.

This is an odd argument, like saying to someone you’re beating up, “Oh, you’re just crying because you want me to stop punching you in the face.” Well, yeah.

But it’s not just teachers making the point. The state of Arizona ran a study on recruitment and retention and came up with suggestions like “treat teachers with respect.”

It’s the Economy, Stupid

There’s a teacher shortage because the economy is better. Because there are so many great jobs out there, this argument goes, college students are saying no to teaching.

There are three problems with this theory.

First, the recovery has added a disproportionate number of crappy jobs. “Why become a teacher when I can go work at McDonalds,” said no college student ever.

Second, this theory could be best supported by a historical argument. Simply show the figures indicating that every time the economy gets good, we have a teacher shortage. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

Third, what this theory describes is not a teacher shortage, but a teacher pay gap. When National Widget Works can’t hire all the widget engineers it needs, it takes steps to make the job more attractive by improving pay, benefits and work conditions. Is it possible that the only real shortage is a shortage of willingness to do what it takes to recruit?

Well, It’s Complicated

Once again, nuance and detail are trampled by a herd of rhetorical bulls. Many states report shortages in STEM area, in special ed, and in ELL. Some states have trouble recruiting to rural areas. On the other hand, nobody is reporting a pressing shortage of elementary teachers. And I don’t think anybody on any side of this issue is claiming that we have more than adequate numbers of non-white teachers in the field.

It’s Manufactured

Just as it’s argued that teachers are over-selling the shortage to score points against reformster policies, we can argue that reformsters are using shortage rhetoric to promote their own policies.

The most obvious example is New Orleans, where officials fired over 7,000 teachers and then said, “Dang! We have a teacher shortage. We’d better ship in lots of low-cost Teach for America temps to help us with this dreadful shortage!” Nevada has embraced its teacher shortage as a way to speed former cocktail waitresses into classrooms, and West Virginia boasts a guy who feels qualified to teach biology because his wife’s a nurse.

If your state is run by folks with little love for the teaching profession, then reports of a shortage are good leverage for alternate certification plans to put people in classrooms who don’t even have a college degree. That leads us to--

It’s a New Definition of “Teacher”

Some places “solve” their problem of a teacher shortage by simply redefining “teacher” as “a sentient human able to occupy a classroom.” By this definition, there are hundreds of millions of teachers in this country. See? No shortage at all.

It’s the Busted Pipeline

I’ve talked to the president of a college that was founded as a teacher’s college and is now radically slashing its education department. She echoed many national reports-- students are not going to college for teaching.

Nobody knows why for certain, though there are certainly popular theories. Teachers have been badmouthed and the profession denigrated. Today’s college students have had nothing but teachers who had little autonomy, were tasked with test prep and spent time in clerically-intense data collection, and it just doesn’t look like fun.

Teaching was once a stable job, paying decent-if-not-awesome wages, offering job security and promising a good prospect of finding work. All of that has changed. Ironically, the opening of alternate certification means that a teacher shortage and a tight job market can exist side by side (again, think New Orleans with 7,000 out of work teachers and a teacher shortage all at the same time).

So, Is There Really a Shortage?

It’s true that rhetoric about teacher shortages serve the interests of both reformsters (We need more alt cert and TFA) and the resistance (Look what they’re doing to our profession). But just a look at the numbers shows us that some regions are looking at empty jobs they are having trouble filling.

But does that mean a shortage? Nope. It’s one more version of the widespread corporate refusal to deal with demands of the invisible hand. We didn’t send jobs to China because we couldn’t find the workers in the US, but because we couldn’t find them for what corporations wanted to pay. Tech companies have yelled “shortage” in order to import cheaper labor.

The invisible hand is very clear. When you can’t get what you want for X dollars, you need to offer more. The world is filled with human beings who have the ability to morph into any kind of worker you want-- if you offer them motivation. Good lord, even Frank Bruni, not exactly a whiz on the topic of education, gets it at least a little (even if he doesn’t understand why he’s part of the problem).

If you’re having trouble filling a teaching position, make a better offer. It really doesn’t get any more complicated than that.

The opinions expressed in View From the Cheap Seats 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.

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