Is there a teacher shortage? It’s complicated


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With summer almost over and students preparing to return to the classroom, there have been more than a few stories about school districts struggling to staff up.

Here’s a good example in The Washington Post, which looked at two rural districts in Texas that may only provide instruction four days per week and a plan to bring veterans with no teaching background in to Florida schools.

There are reports about unfilled positions in Nevada, Illinois and Arizona, among others.

CNN’s Fredricka Whitfield spoke in early August with Jesus Jara, superintendent of Nevada’s Clark County School District, which resumed classes this month with more than 1,400 job vacancies, some of them for teachers. Watch that interview.

But it’s a complicated issue, and it’s difficult to argue there is a nationwide teacher shortage because education in the US is so completely focused at the local level.

I talked to Paul Bruno, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who uses quantitative methods to study the education system. What drew me to Bruno was his recent argument that reporters should be very careful arguing there is a nationwide “shortage” of teachers.

Our conversation, conducted by phone and edited for length and flow, is below.

WHAT MATTERS: A lot of people have been writing about this idea that there’s a teacher shortage. The most notable example is districts in Texas that said they might go to four days a week because they can’t find enough teachers. But you write that we shouldn’t be using the term “teacher shortage.” I just wanted you to explain why we should not view what’s going on in the US as a teacher shortage.

BRUNO: There are a couple of reasons to at least be cautious about using the term “teacher shortage.”

One reason is that I think it just means different things to different people.

I think for some people, when they say a shortage, they mean they have positions that they literally cannot fill that are going vacant.

But for other people, especially I think a lot of administrators, I think they are often using that term to mean something like, “I wish I had more money or better applicants to choose from.”

It’s also oftentimes not always clear whether the shortage that exists is driven by different factors, like whether it’s increased hiring, which you actually see in a lot of school districts right now, or whether it’s a smaller supply of teachers.

Secondly, I think it’s very hard to talk about the supply of teachers on a nationwide basis, just because there are so many different kinds of teachers and the supply of those teachers differs so dramatically across different parts of the country or even for different jobs in the same school.

So talking about whether there is a teacher shortage nationally, I think, doesn’t necessarily tell us a ton about what’s actually going on.

WHAT MATTERS: Are there places in the US that don’t have enough teachers?

BRUNO: Yes. I think anecdotally it’s safe to say there are definitely some places that don’t have at least some kinds of teachers. As you alluded to, these seem to be school districts that have positions going vacant.

And I know some school districts are having trouble filling specific types of teaching positions, especially, for example, special education teachers, or they’re even deciding just not to post positions because they don’t think they’ll be able to fill them. So it’s definitely true that there are some places where they’re not able to fill the positions that they have.

And I think it would be reasonable to say they’re experiencing some teacher shortages. I would just caution about generalizing from them to other schools.

Even some of the schools that I know are experiencing some teacher shortages, like for special education teachers, are not really having trouble filling other positions at the very same schools.

So I think talking about them as having a teacher shortage sort of obscures the specific problems that they’re having, which might then affect how we think about which students are most affected by this and how we might want to fix those problems.

WHAT MATTERS: In the state where I live, Virginia, one thing that’s being discussed is easing licensing requirements and making it easier for people to take some of those roles that require more training. Is that something you see around the country? Is that something that is a good thing?

BRUNO: That’s definitely something that you see. At least some different states are considering, to varying degrees, relaxing some of those certification requirements for teachers and letting someone just come in with less formal preparation.

On the one hand, I think that is a potentially concerning sign since it does indicate there’s some problems that they’re having finding enough teachers.

On the other hand, I think it’s a reasonable way of approaching these problems when they exist because a lot of those licensure requirements often don’t seem to be very good predictors of who is going to be an effective teacher.

If they’re keeping people out of teaching but not necessarily ensuring that you have stronger teachers, then that seems like potentially a useful strategy to deal with some of these things. Of course, you also want to be careful about the standards you’re holding teachers to being effective and being high enough.

WHAT MATTERS: In this newsletter, we often write about politics. Republicans in particular want to push the idea of “parental rights.” You’ve seen that in Florida and many other states. There’s also the issue of wages. Advocates would say we just need to pay teachers more. Is there anything that you’ve seen that says what’s causing fewer people to be interested in teaching is a result of either the political conversation or the wage question?

BRUNO: I think it’s a little early to make claims about some of the more recent political questions around what teachers can say or teach in the classroom and how big of an impact that’s going to have on people being able to go into the profession or stay in the profession. I think it’s too early to say.

There are some worrying signs of some teachers in those states or some specific districts in those states feeling like they’re being censored or their teaching is being restricted in some way. And you can imagine that potentially causing problems.

I would guess that going forward there are going to be much bigger factors like what happens to the economy and to school funding and to enrollment at the schools … especially after the pandemic.

Now on the question of wages, I do think you’ve seen a much longer-term decline in many places in who and how many are going to teacher preparation programs.

You can think of that as sort of a measure of how interested people are in going into teaching. That predates these new political battles. That predates the pandemic, and it’s driven by bigger economic factors.

I would guess some of that has to do with wages for teachers either not keeping up with other fields or potentially being increasingly concentrated on benefits rather than salaries.

Something you see is teacher compensation increasingly coming in the form of benefits. Even when it’s increasing, it tends to be increasing disproportionately on the benefit side – like health and welfare benefits, retirement benefits – rather than salaries, and I think that could be a factor as well.

WHAT MATTERS: One of the major issues with teaching in the last couple of years has been coping and dealing with the pandemic. What has permanently changed?

BRUNO: There is a lot that’s been changing as a result of the pandemic over the last few years in terms of the teacher supply and potentially teacher shortages.

Part of it is you’ve seen a lot of school districts where enrollment has fallen – I think it’s gone up in some other districts – maybe as families have moved or students or families have changed their preferences about what schools they want to go to. I think that is definitely affecting schools’ hiring situations.

Another big factor right now is that the pandemic did not affect school budgets as much as people thought. They didn’t lose as much revenue as people worried, and they also received a bunch of pandemic relief funding.

That’s creating a situation where, somewhat counterintuitively, schools are often trying to hire a lot more people than they have in the past, even in some cases as their enrollment has gone down.

It’s not necessarily reducing the number of people who are interested in becoming teachers, but it is creating what I think might be described as shortages in some situations where you have a tight labor market in the country as a whole and school districts are trying to fill more positions rather than fewer.

In terms of teachers’ working conditions during the pandemic, I think, again, it’s a little bit early to say.

We know from surveys that teachers have reported feeling worse in the pandemic. They report feeling higher levels of stress, higher levels of burnout. I think it would be surprising if that wasn’t the case, and you see similar things in other jobs.

It’s a little too early at this point to know how much that’s going to affect actual departures among teachers. So far, we have not seen as big a surge in people leaving as we might expect.

And it’s definitely too early to know how that might affect who is interested in going into teaching, over and above the fact there have been some declines, even predating the pandemic, in teacher enrollment.

WHAT MATTERS: There is a storyline about a general labor shortage. Is there any indication that is affecting the teacher pool more than it is other industries?

BRUNO: I have not seen any clear evidence that is affecting teacher exits, or the tight labor markets are affecting schools more than they are affecting other jobs or other parts of the economy.

I expected to see a surge in teacher retirement, for example, once the pandemic started, and that hasn’t really materialized in the way that we expected.

I don’t think we have much evidence that the problems in school districts are any more serious than they are in other parts of the economy. Which isn’t to say there aren’t real problems there, but they might not be unique to schools.

WHAT MATTERS: You talk about a lack of good national data. Is this something that needs to be tracked on the national level?

BRUNO: I would be reluctant to say that we absolutely need some way of tracking this on a nationwide level. I think there is more that states can be doing to make public information about who is working in individual schools.

Some states do much more reporting on this and have much more standardized reporting of this than others. I think it would be helpful, particularly for researchers, but also for policymakers, or journalists, or the public as a whole if more of that sort of detailed information was made available about how many teachers in a school have different kinds of certifications and whether there are vacant positions in a school.

The fact is different states have different requirements for teacher certification. Some different school districts might have different methods for reporting when they’re trying to hire teachers and when they’re unable to hire teachers.

It would be quite a lift to get a nationwide accounting of exactly what the state of teacher shortages is and that’s again in part because what a teacher shortage is is not always entirely clear.

Given that it’s so hard to talk about teachers as a whole and teacher shortages across the country, it’s mostly helpful to be cautious about and specific about exactly what sorts of shortages we are describing, what positions are being affected and what schools are doing about those – and be very cautious about generalizing to all teachers, all schools or the country as a whole.

WHAT MATTERS: We saw the Texas districts that might go to four days a week. Are there other real-life examples you can point to of things that districts are doing?

BRUNO: I haven’t heard of a lot of districts going to four-day weeks. I think in many cases if you’re unable to hire people, you’re unable to hire them for four days or five days.

I have heard about signing bonuses for teachers. I’ve heard about trying to raise compensation, at least temporarily, or potentially to raise salaries for teachers as a whole. I think there’s been some of that.

Unfortunately, we don’t have a really clear picture right now of exactly how schools are navigating some of these challenges. That’s actually a place where journalism can add a lot of value about making that picture more detailed for us.