School & District Management

AERA: What Do We Mean When We Talk About Teacher Shortages?

By Sarah D. Sparks — April 28, 2017 2 min read
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San Antonio, Texas

Debates over perceived teacher shortages often conflate different problems and make it more difficult to find sustainable ways to get every student a good teacher.

That was the consensus at one of the opening symposiums of the American Educational Research Association’s annual conference on Thursday. Linda Darling-Hammond, founder of the Learning Policy Institute, a think tank, led researchers debating how educators and policymakers can better understand what influences teacher shortages from state to state.

Different studies have measured teacher staffing issues differently—from reported district vacancies or the number of applicants per position, to overall teacher-student ratios, to the rates of new teachers entering or leaving the profession—in ways that can conflict with each other or obscure other district policies.

“Just a few years ago, there were layoffs of teachers all over the country in many states and communities,” Darling-Hammond said. “Does that mean the demands for teachers was low and there were surpluses, or was there just not enough money to fulfill the districts’ need for teachers? ... Is ‘supply’ the number of teachers who are prepared and in the market, or simply those who are still breathing?”

Moreover, educators and policymakers have worried about the lack of enough high-quality teachers going back at least as far as the 1500s, according to Ellen Behrstock-Sherratt, the deputy director of the Center on Great Teachers and Leaders at the American Institutes of Research. Rather than a general staffing shortage, Behrstock-Sherratt argued teacher shortages often differ dramatically from district to district and across courses, with math, science, foreign language, special education, and career-tech education the main subject areas with regular shortages.

Richard Ingersoll, an education and psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said he considered teacher staffing a “leaky bucket.” He and Henry May, the director of the Center on Research in Education and Social Policy, analyzed data from the federal Schools and Staffing Survey and found teachers are actually growing at a faster clip than the student population. (See chart, left.) Teachers from minority backgrounds more than doubled since the late 1980s, including black and Hispanic male teachers. However, teachers from racial and ethnic minorities are still vastly underrepresented in the teaching force; they made up little more than 17 percent of all U.S. teachers, as of 2011-12, while 44 percent of public school students are members of racial minority groups.

That may be because even with increases in recruitment, teachers of color are leaving the profession faster than they come in, Ingersoll said. For example, while more than 47,000 minority teachers entered the workforce in 2003-04, by the next year, roughly 56,000 left the profession. Since the early 1990s, teachers of color have had higher attrition than their white peers (See chart, right.)

State pay differences can exacerbate those problems, according to LPI researcher Leib Sutcher. For example, Arizona, where teachers earn 62 percent of what non-teachers earn in the same subjects, has a 19 percent teacher attrition rate. By contrast, Oregon teachers earn 75 percent of what non-teachers earn in the same subjects, and the state has only 7 percent attrition.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.