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Here’s How Sen. Tim Kaine Wants to Fix Teacher Shortages, and Why It’s Tricky

By Andrew Ujifusa — July 31, 2018 4 min read
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The issue of teacher shortages is one of the more complicated problems facing public schools. A Virginia senator has a plan to address it. But is he on target or off base?

On Tuesday, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., introduced the Preparing and Retaining Education Professionals (PREP) Act. The legislation aims to address both teacher and principal shortages by broadening the definition of a high-need district under the Every Student Succeeds Act to include rural districts with educator shortages, as well as districts lacking teachers in specific subject areas, such as teaching English learners, science, math, engineering, and career and technical education.

His bill would also:

  • Encourage “Grow Your Own” programs, in which districts partner with local community colleges and universities to bolster their teacher ranks;
  • Increase access to teacher and school leader residency and preparation programs;
  • Require states to identify the subject areas in which teacher shortages are most acute;
  • And aim to increase the flow of teachers from historically black colleges and universities, as well as other institutions of higher education that serve large shares of students of color.

“At the start of every school year we see the same headlines about exploding class sizes and districts facing unfillable openings,” Kaine said in a statement about his bill. “Teacher shortages plague the whole country, and are worst in our rural communities, but it’s a problem we can solve.”

Kaine’s bill has the backing of the American Federation of Teachers, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and the National Association of Secondary School Principals, among other education organizations. “The PREP Act includes best practices and smart reforms we are implementing in Virginia to address teacher shortages,” Virginia state schools chief James Lane said in a statement.

Teacher Supply and Teacher Shortages

As it happens, Education Week has written extensively in the past several months about teacher shortages. Sometimes the discussion and rhetoric around the topic can be confusing.

For one thing, the number of U.S. teachers grew by 13 percent from 2013 to 2017, compared to a 2 percent rise in student enrollment. So for those worried about shortages, that 13 percent figure at least is headed in the right direction. And since Kaine’s office advertises his bill as addressing “nationwide teacher and principal shortages,” it’s important to clarify that there isn’t an overall net deficit for all American teachers in all areas and for all subjects. There’s a greater supply of elementary school teachers than a demand for them in American schools, for example.

“It’s not the case that we have a nationwide teacher shortage. It is the case that we have a shortage in particular schools and school systems. So if we try to apply a generic solution to what is a nuanced problem, we’re not very likely to move the needle very much,” Dan Goldhaber, the director of the Center for Education Data and Research at the University of Washington, told Education Week earlier this year.

On a related note, the shortage of STEM teachers is mainly an issue for high schools, since that’s where more science subjects are broken out by individual classes. Nonetheless, Kaine’s bill does single out several subject areas where there are shortages in many states. (More on that below.)

What about those schools in remote areas? As our coworker Stephen Sawchuk reported this year, rural districts often can’t pay as much as their urban counterparts: an average salary in one far-flung Colorado district is $16,000 less than the average salary in Denver. And rural educators often simply have more responsibilities to juggle, an everyday fact of life for rural educators that might be tough to address through federal legislation. Those on the hunt for new teachers often tap every professional and personal connection they can, including former pupils, in the name of recruitment.

In his statement, Kaine highlighted Virginia’s Middlesex County—a jurisdiction with only three public schools that’s on the Chesapeake Bay about a three-hour drive from Washington, D.C.—where the 20 unfilled teaching jobs for the 2016-17 school year represented 20.3 percent of the teaching workforce.

The teacher residency programs Kaine highlights in his bill, which offer a network of supports as well as paid work in classrooms to those working towards a teaching degree, can be very expensive. However, residency programs have shown promise in bringing more male Latino teachers, and a more diverse set of teachers in general, to the educator workforce, for example.

Last year, in our analysis of federal data, we found that all 50 states and most territories “reported experiencing statewide shortages” in at least one teaching area for the 2016-17 or 2017-18 school years, or both. But in general, states aren’t tracking teacher shortages, we reported last year. And some subject areas were far more problematic than others:

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