New Federal Surveys on Teacher Staffing, Mobility, Attrition
The federal Center for Education Statistics has just finished field-testing a new series of "Schools and Staffing Surveys'' that experts predict will provide far better estimates of teacher supply and demand than have previously been available.
For the first time, the surveys will enable the federal government to make projections by subject area, grade level, and geographic location, and to conduct detailed analyses of teacher mobility and attrition.
In addition, they will provide a better picture of teachers' working conditions and of the quality and qualifications of the teaching force.
Do Not Subtract
The interwoven group of surveys will go to district officials, school principals, and teachers. In addition, a longitudinal follow-up will track a subset of teachers who have left the profession.
According to Linda Darling-Hammond, a researcher with the RAND Corporation, which helped design the instruments, the surveys will provide information on the number of people who are leaving teaching and on "where they go, what their plans are to return, and what types of teachers they are.''
The surveys will also supply data on teachers' preparation, their qualifications, and their assignment or misassignment to particular subjects.
Funding for the new surveys is now under consideration by the Congress. Officials of the Center for Education Statistics say they hope to carry out the project on a full scale beginning in January.
According to Paul Planchon, acting director of the center's division for elementary- and secondary-education statistics, the surveys will cost approximately $6.5 million for each two-year cycle.
"Until we get all these data,'' said Debra Gerald, a mathematical statistician with the center, "no one should ever subtract supply from demand and determine if there is a shortage.''
The surveys appear likely to address some of the concerns about previous federal projections expressed in an interim report on teacher supply and demand conducted for the Education Department and the National Science Foundation by the National Academy of Sciences.
That report criticized the statistics center's projections on a number of counts. In particular, it said, the center failed to disaggregate data by subject area or geographic region, and wrongly limited estimates of teacher supply to recent graduates of teacher-education programs.
In addition to efforts to improve the quality of statistics at the national level, several groups are trying to develop a better understanding of state-level data.
In the second part of its 30-month project, the Academy is conducting case studies of mathematics and science teachers in a small sample of school districts to find out why they entered teaching, how long they might stay, and possible reasons for leaving.
The Academy is also surveying states to find out what kind of data on teacher supply and demand they collect, and how they use it.
In addition, the Council of Chief State School Officers is conducting a study to determine what information states have available to predict teacher supply and demand, how they collect it, and whether they analyze it.
"There are probably not too many states that have gone into this very deeply,'' said Rolf K. Blank, who is conducting the study. Some states are not worried about teacher shortages, he said, and so do not analyze the available information. But approximately a third of the states would like better data, he estimated.
"A lot of them are looking to the federal level to do this,'' he said. "I think some of them, if they had federal data available, broken down by state, would use it.''
The Reserve Pool
According to Peter M. Prowda, coordinator of research services for the Connecticut Department of Education, most states can draw on their teacher-certification files and teacher-retirement systems for the basic data they need to compute estimates of supply and demand.
"The question is how much you keep on a computer file,'' and whether the state makes use of it, he said.
"Our files are not data-rich, but we're able to analyze the living daylights out of them.''
Both Connecticut and California are conducting detailed studies designed to give state officials better information about their teacher-reserve pools, in particular.
Connecticut is surveying a sample of people who were certified but did not get jobs to find out where they applied, whether they think they will be looking for a teaching job in the coming year, and what they are doing now.
The state is also surveying a sample of former teachers to gather similar information.
In California, meanwhile, officials are contacting a sampling of people certified in mathematics, the life sciences, or the physical sciences in the past three years. Respondents are being asked whether they are teaching, what is likely to keep them in the field, and, if they are not teaching, why not.
A larger, but similar, survey, involving a sample of the 1.5 million people currently holding teaching credentials in the state, is also under way.
"My sense is that state-level officials are beginning to pay more attention to monitoring teacher supply and demand after decades of neglecting to monitor it,'' said Arthur E. Wise, director of center for the study of the teaching profession.
"But for the most part, the systems are at a crude and unsophisticated level, often producing results which may well be misleading.''
"There's a tendency to rely to too great an extent upon surveys of local superintendents,'' he explained. "And when you do that, you find out what's going on this year. You do not find out what's going to go on next year or the year after.''
Mr. Wise also said that school administrators may have incentives to under-predict teacher shortages and misassignments. "School officials and state officials have a built-in incentive structure for suggesting that everything is under control,'' he said.
"One big question,'' added Mr. Blank, "is how many people do you have who are currently teaching who are not qualified to teach what they are doing?''
"That is a big part of supply and demand,'' he said. "One of the major reasons that you get different estimates is if you're asking just whether positions are filled, or whether you really have a qualified teacher.''--L.O. & B.R.