The Teacher Shortage Crisis – Why Now?

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As the school year approaches, schools districts and states across the country are experiencing a teacher shortage. Why the shortage now?

As the school year approaches, schools districts and states across the country are experiencing teacher shortages. The New York Times reports cities such as Charlotte,  Louisville, Nashville, Oklahoma City, and Providence are scrambling to find qualified educators before the school doors open. Moreover, the flow of new teachers into the profession is slowing. Enrollment is down 30% across US teacher preparation programs. And applications for Teach For America have dipped for a second straight year.

Why the shortage now? Review of the landscape suggests a  combination of factors.

  • Recession fallout. The recession of the late 2000s impacted the teaching workforce in three critical ways. First, large numbers of teachers were laid off nationally. Now as districts are on the rebound they are having difficulty recouping lost staff. Second,  we are experiencing the impact of large-scale retirements by baby-boomer educators.  Approximately half of US teachers and principals are baby-boomers. Their retirement has been projected for years. Yet the recession likely delayed the retirement wave, as veteran teachers felt less secure and the need to stay employed for longer.  Third, teacher lay-offs, rising college tuition, student debt and low compensation, likely combined to make both undergraduate and graduate students hesitant to choose education majors and careers. In fact, the starting salary for teachers in many states (around $30,000) is equivalent to – or just under—the debt burden carried by many students upon graduation.
  • Perception that teaching is not worth it. Perhaps most concerning is the sentiment that teaching is not a desirable profession. The drop in enrollment among teacher education programs suggests this sentiment may be growing  among prospective teachers, either due to the perceived low future economic return on higher education investment or the concern that teaching is too challenging and not rewarding. The attrition rate among many current teachers, anywhere from 17% to 50%  (depending on the data source and the school setting) also points to declining professional gratification. Results from the 2012 Met Life Survey of The American Teacher show that between 2008 and 2012, teacher satisfaction declined 23 percentage points, from 62% reporting they were very satisfied to just 39% reporting they were very satisfied – the lowest level in 25 years. The reasons teachers are unhappy?  Scanning research, reports, and education blogs familiar themes emerge: testing and curriculum mandates, poor working conditions (e.g. lack of administrative support, poor student discipline, little input in decisions, large class sizes and minimal planning time), and low or stagnate wages and increasing contributions to benefits, in relation to other professions.

Results from the 2012 Met Life Survey of The American Teacher show that between 2008 and 2012, teacher satisfaction declined 23 percentage points, from 62% reporting they were very satisfied to just 39% reporting they were very satisfied – the lowest level in 25 years

  • Millennial mismatch. Disinterest in teaching may be a generational issue as well. Millennials — the population of ‘twenty-somethings’ entering adulthood— represent the most ethnically and racially diverse and educated generation in US history. They are highly technology savvy (in relation to other generations), and often described as confident, self-expressive, collaborative, upbeat, and open to learning and change. A report by the Third Way, however, suggests that they are not enamored with teaching. In teaching, they see a traditional, off-putting profession, with low preparation and certification standards, controlled, restrictive organizational cultures, minimal use of technology,  and limited training and opportunities for career growth.  They see also teachers working in isolation, rather than on dynamic teams. Schools thus have a hard-time competing with energetic tech startups for bright, motivated millennials.

In many ways, the easy part of addressing the teacher shortage is the funding—i.e. providing schools with more resources, post-recession, to hire staff. Another quick fix is to support more efficient and cost-effective alternative teacher education programs, which many states and the US Department of Education have done. The harder, and longer task is changing the experience of teaching and the organizational culture of schools. This will require bold re-imagining of what schools and the practice of teaching can and should look like to attract qualified candidates to the profession, as well as to improve student engagement and learning outcomes. For example, could schools mirror the culture, work experience, excitement and teamwork of tech startups or new nonprofits?  Without this introspection and the courage to change, annual teaching shortages may be with us for many years to come.