Teaching Profession Opinion

How to End Teacher Shortages. Really.

By Marc Tucker — October 06, 2016 10 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

My father graduated from Harvard College in the depths of the Great Depression and looked immediately for a job teaching school. In those desperate days, school teaching was considered one of the most secure jobs one could get. Even in the worst of times, school children would need teachers; their jobs would never be at risk.

But, in the recent Great Recession, that conventional wisdom was turned on its head. From a career providing the ultimate in job security, school teaching became one of the least secure occupations in the United States almost overnight. That was partly because the Great Recession was caused not by the normal economic cycle but by plummeting housing prices. School budgets all over the country are sustained by property taxes, and property tax collections sank right along with the falling property values. School districts were forced to shorten school years and lay off teachers because they were running out of money. Teachers’ salaries were frozen or delayed. Almost overnight, teaching was transformed from the most secure of occupations into one of the least secure.

But the direct effects of the Great Recession on the supply of new teachers took second place to the indirect effects. The financial crisis that sparked the Great Recession also produced the federal government’s Race to the Top program, passed as part of the emergency legislation designed to get the country back on its economic feet. Race to the Top contained provisions that called for implementation of the Common Core State Standards and for holding teachers accountable for the performance of their students on standardized tests tied to the Common Core standards. The Obama version of the accountability movement was driven by people who thought the most efficient way to improve student performance was to fire the nation’s worst teachers. And the way to identify the worst teachers was to find out how an individual teacher’s students did on the new accountability tests.

But the new tests tied to the Common Core were years away from being ready, so teachers were held accountable for student performance on the old tests, cheap tests that had nothing to do with the Common Core. Teachers rarely got the time and training they needed to develop the new lessons and learn the new teaching techniques the Common Core would require. And then a growing number of teachers, including widely admired teachers, were getting sacked on the basis of the test performance of their students, despite the virtually universal opinion of testing experts that this was not a valid use of the tests. As public policy was focusing on getting rid of the worst teachers, principals were being assailed for giving all teachers strong evaluations. Unions were being assailed for protecting low-performing teachers. Governors were going after teachers’ benefits, even as teachers’ pay was declining.

Add all this to the image of teachers being laid off in unprecedented numbers due to greatly reduced local tax collections, and it should surprise no one that young people with strong high school records had very little interest in choosing teaching as a career and experienced teachers were leaving teaching in droves, long before they reached retirement age.

The consequences are well described in A Coming Crisis in Teaching? Teacher Supply, Demand and Shortages in the U.S., a new report from Linda Darling-Hammond’s Learning Policy Institute (LPI). At a recent release event for the report in Washington, Darling-Hammond laid out the numbers.

Demand for teachers rose after the Great Recession to about 260,000 teacher hires in 2014 and is projected to rise still further to about 300,000 teacher hirings per year by the 2017-18 school year. An increase in the student population is partly responsible for the increase in demand, as is the desire to restore teacher-pupil ratios in place before the Great Recession, but the biggest factor affecting demand is teacher attrition, estimated now to be nearly 8 percent of the workforce per year. These are not mainly teachers who have reached retirement age, but teachers who have decided to get out of teaching. Which is why LPI describes the teacher workforce as a “leaky bucket"; the water is pouring out of it almost as fast as it is pouring in. The report notes that reducing this very high rate of attrition would do more than any other strategy to reduce the teacher shortage.

Increased demand would not be a problem if the nation had a strong supply of capable teachers looking for jobs. But it doesn’t. LPI reports that between 2009 and 2014, teacher education enrollments dropped from 691,000 to 451,000, a reduction of 35 percent. There are many retired teachers and teachers who have moved on to other occupations who could be hired. But only a third of teachers who exit ever return, and the same factors that have led to the steep decline in applications to teachers colleges are also deterring former teachers from reentering the occupation. So the gap between demand and supply of teachers is steadily widening.

Critics have since challenged these conclusions. I’ve read what the critics had to say, as well as the response to their critiques from LPI. As I read it, the response from LPI is well-reasoned and well-documented, but you should judge that for yourself.

I will not rehash all the charges and the responses to those charges here. But I do want to emphasize a few points. LPI defines a teacher shortage as a shortage of qualified teachers, not a shortage of warm bodies willing to stand up in front of a class of students. Some of the critics have faulted the LPI study by pointing out that when, in the past, Linda Darling-Hammond has predicted a shortage of teachers, people were found to fill the openings. Yup. That’s true. But that does not mean that those people were good teachers and indeed there is plenty of evidence to show that many were not. The preponderance of the positions filled with unqualified teachers went to serve the students most dependent on good teachers: low-income and minority students. That, in my view, does not prove the LPI wrong; it proves them right. This is the central issue.

Another critic points out that, in recent years, more new teachers have come from the ranks of mid-career changers rather than new college graduates, so we should not be alarmed by the fall in applications to teachers colleges. But here, too, we are looking more often than not at people who have been through alternative route programs for entering teaching or who have been granted waivers from the usual licensing requirements. The idea that a system can consistently create capable teachers out of a program based on only a few weeks of training flies in the face of everything we know about teaching, and for young people considering a career in teaching, is just another sign that we do not take teaching seriously as a profession. In any case, someone needs to explain to me why capable, mid-career people would be more interested in teaching now in an environment that has gotten so corrosive that high school graduates who used to think first of teaching are now avoiding a teaching career entirely.

Even more important than getting the numbers exactly right is getting the direction of the trends right. No one I know is questioning the widely reported precipitous fall in applications to schools of education in recent years. Or the increasing frequency of reports from states and school districts that they are having more trouble filling their openings than at any time in their memory. Or the rising incidence of states waiving their already weak requirements for licensing teachers in the face of what they are describing as a teacher shortage. Or the increasing rates of retirement of experienced teachers who have not yet reached retirement age.

All this data points in the direction of reduced interest in becoming a teacher by young people entering college as well as mid-career people who might otherwise consider a career in teaching.

I pointed out above that the LPI’s definition of teacher shortage is a shortage of qualified teachers, not a shortage of warm bodies willing to teach with emergency teaching certificates. But what do we mean by a qualified teacher? Imagine for a moment that we think of qualified teachers as people who have what it takes to get students ready for college and career by the time they leave high school. The critics point out that the nation produces twice as many elementary school teachers as the schools can absorb every year and cite that data as evidence that there is no shortage of qualified elementary school teachers. I beg to differ. Far too many of our elementary school teachers are coming from teachers colleges that will take anyone with a high school diploma. But a large fraction of those high school graduates have only a very shaky command of middle school math, cannot do high school math, are very poor writers and cannot comprehend a text written at the 12th grade level. I would like to know how the critics could maintain that people with high school records like that could be considered qualified to teach elementary school.

It ought to be obvious that, instead of letting anyone teach, irrespective of qualifications, or turning to teachers who attended marginal colleges and universities for our teachers, we should be putting a really good teacher in front of every student—and I mean every student. Dream on, says the reader. If we cannot afford to attract even unqualified teachers in sufficient numbers to meet demand, how could we possibly afford to get truly great teachers in front of all of our students?

Before you stop reading, convinced that there is no way to answer that question, consider the following. According to the OECD, the United States spends more per student in its elementary and secondary education system than all but three other countries, one of which is a tiny principality in Europe, but close to 30 of the countries surveyed by PISA have high school students who are outperforming our high school students, many of them by wide margins. When we ask them how they did it, the most frequent answer we get has to do with teacher quality. If we want to see what it would take to get great teachers and spend no more than we are spending now, why not take a look at these countries to see how they do it?

That was the premise of a request our organization made two years ago to Linda Darling-Hammond to consider leading a very large international comparative study of teacher quality. She agreed, gathered a team of leading scholars, many of whom also played senior roles in the education systems of the countries they studied, and worked for two years to figure out what it takes for a country or state to build a whole teaching force of high-quality teachers. The full study is due to be released in March.

There is not space enough here to do justice to their findings or to describe in any detail the recommendations that flow from them, much less to supplement those findings and recommendations from other research studies on the same topic that we have conducted and funded over the last few years. But here are a few nuggets:

  • recruit your teachers from the top half of the distribution of high school graduates going to college instead of the bottom half;
  • limit the education and training of teachers to your high prestige universities;
  • make sure that compensation is competitive with the high status professions;
  • offer top high school graduates a free ride in college and university and even a wage while in training if they agree to serve in a school serving low-income children for--say--five years after they graduate;
  • set up career ladders for teachers that offer a real career in teaching leading to a master teacher step at which point teachers are paid as much as school principals;
  • reward teachers as they go up the ladder for superior expertise as teachers, their ability to mentor teachers well, their ability to lead other teachers in the work of improving outcomes for students and their expertise in research;
  • among other things, make advancement up the career ladder contingent on first serving in schools with high proportions of low-income and minority children;
  • reorganize the school so that teachers have a lot more time to work in teams to systematically and continuously improve the curriculum, lessons, assessment and teaching techniques;
  • give new teachers much more support than they typically get when they start to work in schools, under the supervision of the best teachers in the district, with a reduced teaching load, a chance to observe great teaching, and steady critiques of their work from highly experienced teachers; and
  • set the school up so that teachers are constantly in each others’ classrooms, learning from each other.

There is much more than this. But you get the idea. The right response to teacher shortages is not to further deprofessionalize this beleaguered occupation, but to professionalize it. Other nations have applied that lesson to teachers and teaching with great success. Every one of our states has all the authority it needs to follow their lead.

The opinions expressed in Top Performers are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.