Recruitment & Retention

Colleges Overproducing Elementary Teachers, Data Find

By Stephen Sawchuk — January 22, 2013 10 min read
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Though universities’ economics departments preach the gospel of supply and demand, that principle is not always followed when it comes to their education departments.

Data, while imprecise, suggest that some states are producing far more new teachers at the elementary level than will be able to find jobs in their respective states—even as districts struggle to find enough recruits in other certification fields.

For some observers, the imbalances reflect a failure of teacher colleges—by far, the largest source of new teachers—and their regulatory agencies to cap the number of entrants.

“If you increase the number of elementary teachers beyond what the market will bear, you are going to be forcing far too many trainees into an overburdened K-12 system,” said Arthur McKee, the managing director of teacher-preparation studies at the Washington-based National Council on Teacher Quality. “We need to have some equilibrium so we can set up strong clinical programs. And everybody wants to do that.”

But scholars who study the issue acknowledge that, even if a net oversupply of elementary teachers exists in some states, remedies are difficult. They are complicated, such scholars say, by a lack of comparable, cross-state data and by the complex and variable nature of the education labor market.


The second story in an occasional series about improving teacher preparation.

And at a more conceptual level, agreement in the field is limited about whether—and how much—individual preparation programs should bear the responsibility of aligning their production of teachers to state or local market needs.

“Would we raise this question about English majors? It’s sort of notorious that English majors get jobs waiting tables, ... but people still do it because they enjoy it and find it a useful thing to do,” said Jim H. Wyckoff, a professor of education and policy at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville. “So I’m a little concerned about treating education differently from other disciplines.”

Telling Figures

Questions of teacher supply and demand have been raised for decades, predominantly in light of view of “shortage” areas or large demographic trends. By contrast, the particular effects of oversupply have been far less probed.

For this article, Education Week examined data from states’ own labor projections and from supply-and-demand analyses, then cross-checked them with federal data submitted by the states as part of the reporting required under Title II of the Higher Education Act.

State Output

Some states produce enough elementary teachers to fill anticipated openings, but others produce twice as many as needed—or more.

Supply Demand Percent Difference
New York6,4982,800232

Excepting Illinois and Maryland, supply figures come from Title II for 2009-10 and represent only new teachers. Maryland supply figures do not include alternatively prepared teachers. Supply and demand figures for Illinois and Maryland are based on their education departments’ analyses. They represent supply in 2009-10 for Illinois and 2010-11 in Maryland, and demand in 2010-11 for both states. Demand figures for other states are based on 10-year occupational estimates from 2010-20, except for Michigan, Mississippi, Tennessee (2008-18) and Colorado (2011-21).

SOURCES: U.S. Department of Education; state education departments; state labor bureaus

New York state’s bureau of labor statistics anticipated the need for 2,800 elementary teachers in 2011-12. The state prepared more than twice that many, or about 6,500 “childhood education” specialists in 2009-10, the state’s most recent Title II data show.

According to Illinois’ supply-and-demand report from 2011, roughly nine new elementary-teacher certificates were issued in the state in 2009 for every one first-time teacher hired in 2010. By comparison, only two special education certificates were issued per slot.

Such data come with important caveats, including the varying ways of calculating the teacher-supply pool and estimating labor projections.

Scholars attribute the trends to the teaching labor market, which generally leaves it up to individuals to decide whether to pursue the profession, according to Robert E. Floden, an education professor at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Mich.

“There is not a tight link the way there is in other countries, where there is a management of access to particular majors in higher education, tied to perceived needs of teachers, and also a national system for getting teachers who have graduated to the hard-to-staff places,” Mr. Floden said.

The United States is also a much more fluid market, in which many states draw from their neighboring states’ supplies.

For example, Maryland data show that despite having teacher shortages in more than a dozen fields, the state produces nearly enough elementary teachers in-state to meet districts’ needs: 1,000 elementary teachers in 2010-11, a year in which 1,100 were hired.

Yet of the 723 new hires in that group, fewer than half were from Maryland’s own teacher colleges; the others came from out of state.

Finally, the tendency toward oversubscription in the elementary fields is also a function of candidates’ interest, said Amee Adkins, an associate dean of the college of education at Illinois State University, in Normal, and the president of the Illinois Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.

“It’s content material they were less intimated by,” she said, ticking off a list of reasons. “Kids are cuter when they’re little. And it’s probably when [the candidates] remember having the most fun in school.”

Raising the Bar?

Groups such as the National Council on Teacher Quality have advanced one compelling argument for why policymakers should be concerned with supply-and-demand mismatches.

If colleges produced fewer elementary-level teachers, the council argues, they could be more selective about whom they admit and give candidates more intensive experiences, including the full year of student-teaching that national organizations for teacher-college accreditation have endorsed.

It’s the latter argument that appeals to Arthur E. Wise, an independent consultant and a former president of the Washington-based National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education.

“I think this is the real conundrum in all of this, because of course we lose approximately half of new teachers, which means we have not fully prepared many of these people. Or we want them to learn on the job, some of whom succeed and some of whom do not,” he said. “We could improve, enhance, and extend the quality of teacher preparation, and therefore produce better-qualified new teacher graduates, but probably fewer in number.”

There’s a financial argument to consider, too. States subsidize an important part of teacher training through public university systems and loan-forgiveness programs. When teachers must go out of state to find job openings, states lose out on that investment.

The NCTQ contends, moreover, that states and programs could cut back on production while raising standards: A widely cited Educational Testing Service report from 2007 found that despite improvements, elementary teachers continued to have lower qualifications than other college graduates, so there is room for growth.

“We could raise the bar and get teachers with higher aptitudes in classrooms and still have plenty of elementary teachers,” Mr. McKee said.

Policy Black Hole

However common-sense the idea of better aligning supply and demand is, few policy models for doing so are available to replicate.

Some teacher colleges have tried to redirect candidates interested in elementary teaching into other certification fields. At Illinois State, those efforts have had mixed results, Ms. Adkins said.

Special education, she noted, has proved especially challenging.

“It’s almost enough to be an identifiable pattern that [elementary candidates] who are redirected to special ed., and who have not had any sustained experience with people with disabilities, don’t persist with those majors,” she said.

A few states have charged their preparation programs with boosting numbers in shortage fields. Michigan’s review of its programs, updated in 2008, now gives points to programs for preparing more teachers in high-need subjects. The credit makes up only a small part of the review, however, and all but four institutions received that credit for 2010-11.

Michigan state schools Superintendent Michael Flanagan said in an interview that he would consider taking action to put more of an emphasis on teacher supply and demand.

“In so many ways, [the programs] do such good work,” he said, “but they can’t be an ancillary part of this system that’s so autonomous they don’t have to worry about these issues of supply and demand.”

It is not entirely clear how much authority other state agencies have to demand similar changes.

That’s the case in Minnesota, where state officials are working to produce better supply-and-demand data, but may not be able to compel programs to address mismatches.

“We don’t mandate that institutions adjust the pool of teachers to market needs,” said Richard Wasson, the director of educator licensing for the Minnesota education department. “We ask that they think about it, but there’s no regulation that governs their production of teachers.”

Importers and Exporters

Objections to policy-based solutions tend to center on the imprecision of the data, as well as research showing limited links between teachers’ preservice characteristics and their classroom performance.

State Data: Use With Caution

Scholars agree that one of the challenges in determining teacher-workforce needs is the shortcomings of the data: They’re rough estimates at best and rely on varying, and often obscure, state-defined criteria.

In a 2009 study of Midwestern states, the federally funded REL-Midwest, at the American Institutes for Research, found that states used a broad range of calculations in their supply-and-demand analyses, some basic and others quite sophisticated. Their uses differed significantly, too: A few states disseminated their analyses widely; others provided the bare minimum and only in response to legislative demands, according to Jim Lindsay, a senior researcher in the Naperville, Ill., office of the research and evaluation firm.

The state figures presented in the box on the opposite page should be interpreted with caution. For example, not every “program completer,” a term defined differently by each state for the federally required Title II data submission, actually will go on to teach immediately, if at all. Such individuals belong to what economists call the reserve workforce—people certified to be teachers who could theoretically join it in the future.Additional imprecisions lie with the calculations used to estimate future demand for teachers, which are typically produced by state labor bureaus.

“They do a pretty good ballpark job, but the analyses make certain assumptions about who’s qualified to teach certain classes,” said Michael B. Allen, a Washington-based independent consultant who has written about teacher supply and demand. “And there are assumptions, obviously, about what your student-to-teacher ratio should be. I don’t think they’re horribly off, but they’re off enough that it could make a difference in terms of what states should do to encourage their programs to produce more teachers in some subjects and fewer in others.”

— Stephen Sawchuk

“I’m a little worried that you raise the bar around things like academic ability, ... and that doesn’t necessarily get better-quality teachers,” said Virginia’s Mr. Wyckoff. “It may change the way the workforce looks—it could make it more white, for instance—but it’s not clear that it would improve the workforce.”

Researchers also point to other problems: First, a degree of overproduction is desirable so that districts can be choosy in their selections. And the decentralized nature of the K-12 labor market means that distribution can be uneven, even if net supply is adequate. Even states flush with elementary teachers can face shortages, particularly in urban and rural areas.

“You have programs in remote, rural areas where the local school district really wants them to take their kids and prepare them so they can come back to teach,” Mr. Floden of Michigan State said. “And they would be quite resistant to being told, ‘You have to set much higher standards.’ ”

Meanwhile, the specifics of how teachers move from state to state is not well understood, because data systems typically cannot track a teacher after he or she moves out of state.

Kim Walters-Parker, the director of educator preparation for the Kentucky Education Professional Standards Board, believes that more information is needed on what happens to those teachers who don’t or can’t immediately get an elementary teaching job.

If those individuals go on to dental or law school, the scope of the problem is different from taking, for example, a lower-skilled job while waiting for a teaching opening or filing for unemployment benefits, she said.

“We need to figure out in an economic sense how big of a problem this is,” Ms. Walters-Parker said. “If we overproduce teachers, and they’re working as paraprofessionals making a lower wage, earning less money, less likely to [repay] student loans or pay taxes, we’re not getting our investment back.”

Kentucky, she said, is linking its education and labor databases to give a better picture of what happens to the teachers it produces.

Cash Cows?

Proposals for restricting the number of elementary teacher-candidates are also likely to face resistance from higher education because they could cut into colleges’ bottom lines.

At the elementary level, producing teachers is a relatively inexpensive enterprise, since it does not require extensive access to laboratories or equipment, as do science and other secondary-level fields. And given the increasingly tuition-based nature even of public colleges, few incentives exist for colleges to voluntarily restrict enrollments.

“It puts us in a difficult position with our enrollment offices,” said Illinois State’s Ms. Adkins, “because our enrollment offices want enrollments.”

That’s why Mr. Wise sees the institutional level as the problem.

“From the point of view of a dean of a school of education, the incentive to reduce credit-hour production is challenging, because of course you have fewer enrollees and fewer faculty members and so on,” he said. “If you’re going to put controls on this, they need to be externally generated,” such as state licensing boards.

Whether the issue of oversupply will catch on among policymakers remains uncertain, given other forces now reshaping the teaching profession. Those include not only demographic shifts, such as the expected retirement of thousands of baby boomer teachers, but also policy ones.

New evaluation and pay systems are increasing scrutiny on individual teachers’ performance and seem likely to affect who chooses to enter the workforce.

In some states, fewer students are majoring in elementary education. For instance, the Associated Press reported in December that the California State University system, by far the largest preparer of teachers in the state, lost 20,000 enrollments in less than a decade. Illinois’ enrollments are also down by about 20 percent from four years ago, according to Ms. Adkins.

Still, anecdotes about an extremely competitive elementary marketplace remain.

Mr. Flanagan, the Michigan state superintendent, noted that his daughter, a world-languages teacher, was able to find a job in the state. Not so her colleagues who majored in elementary education.

“All of her friends are in either Arizona or Florida,” Mr. Flanagan said. “All of them.”

Coverage of policy efforts to improve the teaching profession is supported by a grant from the Joyce Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the January 23, 2013 edition of Education Week as Colleges Overproducing Elementary-Level Teachers


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