Teaching Profession

Are Teacher Shortages Worse Than We Thought?

By Madeline Will — March 26, 2019 5 min read
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The teacher shortage is “worse than we thought,” researchers conclude in a new analysis of federal data.

The study, published by the union-backed think tank Economic Policy Institute, argues that when indicators of teacher quality are considered—like experience, certification, and training—the teacher shortage is even more acute than previously estimated. This hits high-poverty schools the hardest, the study’s authors say.

However, other researchers have pushed back against the idea of a national teacher shortage, arguing that shortages are localized and concentrated in certain subjects, like special education and high school math and science. A 2013 analysis by Education Week found that colleges are overproducing elementary teachers.

“We don’t have a national teacher labor market, we have 50 different labor markets,” said Daniel Goldhaber, the director of the Center for Education Data and Research at the University of Washington.

And in most states, the teaching force has actually grown faster than student enrollment.

See also: Teacher Recruitment and Retention: It’s Complicated

Still, Elaine Weiss, a co-author of the EPI report and the former national coordinator for the Broader Bolder Approach to Education campaign, noted that schools across the country have reported difficulties hiring teachers. An Education Week analysis of federal data found that all 50 states reported experiencing statewide shortages in at least one teaching area for either the 2016-17 or 2017-18 school year.

“If schools are reporting that they need teachers, and that they are struggling to find teachers to fill those spots, ... I find it very hard to understand how there can’t be a teacher shortage,” Weiss said.

A few years ago, the Learning Policy Institute, a K-12 think tank led by Linda Darling-Hammond, who is now the chairwoman of California’s board of education, released a package of reports that projected an annual national shortfall of 112,000 teachers by 2018. The need for more educators would continue to grow well into the 2020s, the group predicted.

These estimates likely underestimate the magnitude of the problem, the EPI report says, because they consider how many new qualified teachers are needed to meet new demand. But not all current teachers are highly qualified—a term that, according to the report, means they’re fully certified, they were prepared through a traditional-certification program, they have more than five years experience, and they have relevant experience in the subject they teach.

Goldhaber pushed back against the LPI study, saying the methodology used was flawed and the projections have not materialized: There aren’t currently more than 100,000 people missing from the teaching force, he said.

Still, certain subjects (like special education, high school science and math, foreign language, and bilingual education) and locations (like high-poverty and rural areas) perennially lack teachers. The EPI report doesn’t delve into shortages in subject areas, but it does focus on the growing lack of highly qualified teachers in high-poverty schools.

Who and Where Are ‘Highly Qualified’ Teachers?

“Highly qualified” was, for many years, an important technical term with the force of law behind it. The prior federal law, the No Child Left Behind Act, defined highly qualified teachers as those who held a bachelor’s degree, state certification, and have demonstrated content knowledge. The law required that states staff each core academic class with those teachers. But NCLB’s replacement, the Every Student Succeeds Act, threw out that requirement.

Instead, ESSA says that teachers in schools receiving Title I funds just need to fulfill their state’s licensing requirements. States are also required to define “ineffective,” “out-of-field,” and “inexperienced” teachers, and make sure that poor and minority students aren’t being taught by a disproportionate number of them.

The EPI report expands the NCLB definition of highly qualified teachers to include experience and preparation. The number of teachers who meet EPI’s criteria of highly qualified has declined over time, according to the group’s analysis of federal data.

Alternative-certification programs bring in more teachers of color, male teachers, and teachers who attended selective colleges than traditional prep programs do, past reports have found. But research has also found that alternatively certified teachers quit at higher rates and report feeling less prepared than their traditionally certified colleagues.

The shortage of teachers who meet all these criteria is most pronounced in high-poverty schools, the EPI report finds. For example, 80 percent of teachers in low-poverty schools have more than five years of experience, compared to 75 percent of teachers in high-poverty schools. And about 73 percent of teachers who work in low-poverty schools have an educational background in the subject they teach, compared to 66 percent of teachers in high-poverty schools.

It’s worth noting that high-poverty schools struggle with hiring and retaining teachers in general—not just teachers who meet EPI’s criteria of highly qualified.

But the study’s authors write that highly qualified teachers are in high demand, and are more likely to be recruited by affluent school districts that might be able to offer better working conditions. Low-income children are consistently more likely to be taught by teachers who are not fully certified or who have less experience, the report says.

Indeed, a federal 2016 report found that uncertified teachers were more prevalent among high-poverty schools and schools with high percentages of students of color and English-language learners.

The EPI authors are planning to release five more papers analyzing the conditions that contribute to the shortage of who they deem highly qualified teachers, particularly in high-poverty schools. The papers will look at challenges related to teacher recruitment, pay, working conditions, and professional development, as well as give recommendations to policymakers.

(The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers are some of EPI’s top donors. The think tank gets about 30 percent of its funding from unions, and the rest from foundations, individuals, and other organizations.)

These papers are coming at a time when teachers across the country have been protesting against low wages and crumbling classrooms, Weiss noted.

Image via Getty, chart via Economic Policy Institute

Clarification: This post was updated to clarify EPI’s funding sources.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.