Teacher Preparation Opinion

Coming Up Short When It Comes to Teacher Shortages

By Dave Powell — February 15, 2016 4 min read
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Well this is interesting. Depressing, but interesting.

Out in Clark County, Nevada—in and around Las Vegas—a crisis is unfolding:

At the start of this school year, officials in the 320,000-student district encompassing Las Vegas were scrambling to fill nearly 1,000 classroom vacancies. By the end of December, the system still had more than 700 open positions, with unlicensed substitutes filling the gaps in many schools.

That’s right: there aren’t enough teachers to go around. The reasons why are as predictable as the rising and setting of the sun. “They include local demographic changes, especially a growing Hispanic population; student-enrollment surges; a string of state budget cutbacks; [and] a wave of teacher retirements,” we’re told.

There’s another reason too. According to Kim Metcalf, dean of the school of education at UNLV, there’s a pretty simple supply-and-demand problem here: “There just aren’t nearly as many people anymore who choose to pursue a career in education.”

I wonder why that is. Maybe long work hours, low pay, constant hectoring from elected officials, and job insecurity is making even the most desperate college graduates wonder if teaching makes sense for them. I don’t know. What I do know is that this is a major public policy crisis and that our responses to it so far have been so woefully inadequate that we’re likely to make the hole a lot deeper before we start figuring out a way to dig out.

That’s because at the heart of education policy as it relates to teaching is a stunningly absurd paradox: we think we’ll get more productive teachers, apparently, by requiring them to do more while compensating them less. You can have high expectations and couple them with high pay (which we haven’t really tried); or you can pair low expectations with low pay (which we have). But high expectations with low pay? Who in the world would sign up for that? It’s an amazing compliment to the American people that we’re able to produce as many teachers as we do under these conditions.

And still we wonder where all the good teachers have gone. I think a big part of our problem is that we’re so concerned about the pipeline into teaching that we forget the straight line people take out of it. Hiring incentives and marketing strategies (“Calling All Heroes”? Really?) aren’t going to solve this problem. A problem of this magnitude is going to require some creative thinking, and it’s going to require some serious political will. Instead we’re subjected to the least creative thinking imaginable and fed an endless stream of platitudes by the people we rely on to provide the support needed to make teaching a valued profession. Stuff like this:

Conservatives and free-market lobbyists...want to completely eliminate or scale back certification requirements, expand their Teach For America corps and other alternative routes into the profession, and allow superintendents to sidestep bargaining agreements to give bonuses to special teachers in hard-to-staff fields like special education, science, and math...Liberals and re-energized teachers' unions want to raise taxes to boost teacher pay and make significant changes to states' teacher-evaluation systems, which they say have gone too far in their reliance on test scores and damaged teacher morale.

Scale back certification requirements? The solution to not having enough qualified teachers is not to hire more unqualified teachers. That might solve a body problem but it won’t do much else to improve education, and it won’t stop people from leaving teaching when they realize that the support they need just isn’t there. Expand Teach for America and other alternative routes into the profession? I’ve got news for you: TFA is not a route into the profession of teaching. It’s a route into a lot of other professions, apparently, but teaching ain’t usually one of them. (One study—admittedly, a few years old—indicated that only 14.8% of TFA recruits were still in the schools to which they had originally been assigned five years later; some 43% stay in teaching beyond their commitment, but that could mean two years or twenty.) When you do something for two years it’s a job, not a profession. These days, actually, that’s called an “internship.” And merit pay for “special teachers”? Sounds great. How do we know who’s special?

At the same time, non-merit pay in the form of across-the-board pay increases seems like a non-starter too. We could certainly attract a lot of people to teaching just by paying everybody more money—but how will we attract the right people into teaching? No doubt more could also be done to address the role evaluation systems play in lowering teacher morale, and that may stop some teachers from leaving the profession. But changing teacher work evaluations won’t necessarily improve the quality of teaching, and it won’t do much to attract people into teaching for the long haul. I teach a lot of young people who express interest in teaching. Not many of them are basing their decision on how they’ll be evaluated. To the extent that they are it’s an abstract concept: most assume they’ll be the teachers who are safe because their students get high test scores, whether they should believe that or not.

Nope, this won’t do. None of it. So what will? All the way back in 1999, John Merrow produced a report called “Teacher Shortage: False Alarm?” that warned of a pending crisis in teacher recruitment and retention. You should watch the whole thing if you’ve never seen it. The main takeaway, though, was this: when a pool has a big leak at the bottom, it doesn’t matter how much more water you pour into it. You’ll still have a leaky pool. Considering how obsessed everyone seems to be with outcomes these days, you’d think the problem of improving teaching might be focused more acutely on fixing the leak instead of pouring more water in. Yes, we need to keep bringing new teachers in. We also, though, need to start thinking now about how we’re going to keep them in once we’ve invested in them.

What we need, in short, is a comprehensive response to a persistent problem—one that addresses the leak at the bottom of the pool. To my eye, our problem has never been attracting people to teaching; if anything, we’re constantly being told that we produce too many teachers. The trick is to figure out how to keep the good ones from leaving. If we get that figured out, finding new ones will be a whole lot easier too.

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