Solutions To The Teacher Shortage Crisis Even Republicans Will Like

Jeff Bryant

A new report is making big headlines for showing that public schools across the nation are experiencing severe problems with teacher shortages that are apt to develop into a “crisis” if left unaddressed.

The report from an education think tank called the Learning Policy Institute took off from last year’s widespread news stories that reported how schools were “struggling with shortages of teachers, particularly in math, science, and special education.”

Where this new report goes way beyond last year’s news stories is that it draws from a deep well of statistical validity, meticulous analysis, and wise counsel.

The report not only finds clear and credible evidence of teacher shortages; it provides a baseline definition of the term, identifies the factors driving the shortfalls, forecasts a continuing problem, and offers policy recommendations to shore up the existing teacher supply and attract new, well-qualified entrants.

Nevertheless, there are skeptics who remain unconvinced of the problem. Last year’s anecdotal reports on teacher shortages prompted harrumphs like this one in Forbes that argued it’s still “not clear … how large or prevalent the teacher shortage actually is.”

This year, many skeptics seem similarly unmoved. A reporter covering the LPI release for Education Week found an unconvinced source, Kate Walsh of the National Council on Teacher Quality, who claims, “Nobody has any national data that is justification for declaring a teacher shortage.”

I don’t think Walsh actually read the report, which indeed draws from several federal databases and numerous other quantitative studies and surveys.

Regardless of the evidence, studies finding deep and intractable problems in the teacher workforce always seem to draw the doubting crowd. Republicans, in particular, have always been resistant to the idea there is a teacher shortage. The reasons are somewhat mystifying (like why they hate passenger trains but have no problem flying on airplanes), because there are really very good reasons for Republicans and middle-of-the-roaders to embrace the reality of teacher shortages and press for solutions that are compatible with their values.

First, because Republicans are the party of business, solutions for teacher shortages should draw their interest since the problem is strongly tied to a tenant of business thinking: supply and demand.

As the LPI report explains, teacher shortages are driven by clear causes rooted in industry: a demand for teachers – as a result of efforts to return to pre-recession course offerings and class sizes and ever-increasing populations of students with specific kinds of learning needs – is outstripping supplies of teachers that have been diminished by declines in teacher preparation enrollments and high teacher attrition. As we Southerners are fond of saying, “It’s just that by-god simple.”

The problem of teacher shortages is also rooted in another element of business practice: distribution. As the LPI report explains, even if the supply of teachers increases, it may not help if those new and returning teachers aren’t available where they’re needed most, especially in schools serving low-income communities of color.

As the report states, “The major supports that were enacted in the 1960s and ʼ70s to underwrite preparation for teachers to go to high-need fields and high-need schools (under the National Defense and Education Act) ended in the 1980s, and have not been fully reinstated since then. While some federal grants are currently available, they are not designed to serve as an adequate incentive to candidates.”

Education policy leaders in Montgomery County Maryland and California, the report explains, have taken steps to successfully address that problem. These actions should be replicated elsewhere.

Here’s another aspect of the teacher shortage problem Republicans should love: It’s not just about money.

The number one factor negatively affecting the teacher supply is attrition, so the authors of the LPI report looked for the reasons why so many teachers are leaving their jobs.

What they found is that, contrary to popular notions, teachers aren’t leaving because they’re aging out of work or because they’re disgruntled with low pay. The largest portion of teachers leaving their jobs, 53 percent, does so voluntarily during their pre-retirement years. And only 18 percent of teachers leaving cite financial reasons as the main factor.

Instead, most teachers, 55 percent, leave their jobs due to “areas of dissatisfaction,” which “can range from physical conditions – such as class sizes, facilities, and classroom resources – to unhappiness with administrative practices – such as lack of support, classroom autonomy, or input to decisions – to policy issues, such as the effects of testing and accountability.”

Because teacher turnover is driven less by “student or teacher characteristics” and more by working circumstances, policy makers can make big positive changes by adding more administrative support, taking steps to improve the culture in schools, and giving teachers more time and opportunity to develop collegial relationships, collaborate with their peers, and have more decision-making input into school operations.

This is not to say the report ignores the impact salaries can have on teacher retention and recruitment. The authors cite examples from Connecticut and North Carolina where significant investment in higher teacher pay “solved perennial teacher shortages and created a strong supply of well-qualified teachers.”

(Interesting, North Carolina has since scaled back teacher compensation and is now among the worst states in “teacher attractiveness,” according to an interactive map that accompanies the report.)

But the most dramatic financial impact derived from addressing teacher shortages comes from the significant savings.

The report estimates that public schools waste more than $8 billion annually on replacement costs because of high teacher turnover.

“A comprehensive approach to reducing attrition,” the report states, “would effectively both lessen the demand for teacher hiring and save money that could be better spent on mentoring and other evidence-based approaches to supporting teacher development.”

Finally, we don’t have to wait for the federal government. Republicans should love that many efforts to address teacher shortages can happen at state and local levels of government.

The report offers three broad recommendations to address shortages through policy changes related to teacher compensation, distribution and, retention. These broad recommendations are broken down further into more focused efforts that could be applied at local levels. Only the fourth and final recommendation, to develop a national teacher supply market, would need to be carried out at the federal level.

Of course, the worst way to address the teacher shortage crisis is to lower the qualifications for instructors and reduce the quality of teaching.

Unfortunately, many states are taking that path. As Education Week recently reported, policy leaders and lawmakers in numerous states are following the advice from “conservatives and free-market lobbyists … 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.”

In Utah, schools can now hire teachers who have had no training whatsoever. In Wisconsin, lawmakers have proposed to let “anyone with s bachelor’s degree” teach core academic subjects in grades 6 – 12 and “any person with relevant experience – even a high school dropout“ teach other subjects in those grades.

In Maine and other states, lack of qualified teachers is prompting some school districts to turn to software for instruction, despite some studies showing computer-based instruction can have negative effects on student learning.

Once upon a time, the main reason to address teacher shortages and ensure an adequate supply of the most qualified teaching staff was because it would be what’s best for students.

But in today’s education policy world, driven mostly by financial austerity and ever more stringent demands for “accountability,” that reason no longer seems persuasive enough to spur action. Let’s hope these other reasons will.

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