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Teacher Shortage in Schools – a National Crisis Looming

By Dr. Darrell G. Floyd on September 17, 2019 hst Print

Editor’s Note: While this article does not address high school athletics and performing arts activities specifically, the topic is crucial to the overall health of the 19,500 high schools that are members of NFHS state high school associations. As such, the High School Today Publications Committee believes it will be of great interest to our readership.

Hiring teachers has always been a supply-and-demand issue. But as the Baby Boomer generation ages and retires from their education careers, the hiring of highly qualified, certified and competent teachers is becoming increasingly difficult and could even be bordering on a national crisis.

It is not uncommon these days for school districts to be forced to hire tens, hundreds or even thousands of teachers (depending on the size of the school district) who only possess temporary or emergency teaching certificates. Some states, including Arizona, have recently reported having numerous unfilled teaching positions three months into the school year. And, as of the end of July 2019, Ector County Independent School District in Odessa, Texas lamented the fact that it still had 389 teacher vacancies.

According to a recent report from the Learning Policy Institute, the teacher shortage crisis is here – and it stands to get worse. Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor at Stanford University and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute, stated that teaching is, as an occupation, at its lowest point in 20 years.

Underlying Issues

There are several underlying issues that fold into this very difficult problem.

  1. At a time when public school enrollment is increasing in many areas of the country, large numbers of teachers are headed for retirement and/or are leaving the profession because of dissatisfaction with working conditions in a profession seen as less desirable than it once was. This is combined with the national teacher attrition rate, which is currently about eight percent a year. On average, 6.6 percent of teachers said they wanted to leave teaching as soon as possible, according to a recent study by the Learning Policy Institute. School districts are hearing from more and more teachers who are asking themselves, “Do I really want to put 30 years into public education?” One Maryland educator summed it up this way: “The reality of contemporary public education is that it’s amazing, it’s fulfilling, it’s a calling…but it can also be exhausting.”
  2. As part of their dissatisfaction, teachers increasingly site high student-teacher ratios (too many students in each class) and low pay. Salaries for U.S. teachers have largely remained the same during the past two decades, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (adjusted for inflation).
  3. Meanwhile, enrollment in higher education teacher preparation programs is dropping dramatically, falling 35 percent nationwide in the last several years. A recent survey at UCLA found that freshmen interest in teaching as a career has been steadily declining. Therefore, there are not enough certified teacher candidates filling the pipeline to assume vacant teaching positions.
  4. And finally, those areas that have always been hard to fill such as special education, math, science, foreign language and bilingual/ELL continue to be exacerbated – especially in geographical urban areas with disproportionately high numbers of economically-disadvantaged students. Increasingly, teachers in areas like math, science and other STEM-related fields are leaving for higher-paying private sector jobs after just a few years. And the teachers who are left behind are being asked to do more and more. Several states reporting classes with more than 35 students. As a result of these underlying factors, it was projected that the annual shortfall of certified teachers in the United States in 2018 was 112,000 – and climbing.

Possible Solutions

Only a multi-faceted approach will stem the tide and reverse this negative trend. Here are some possible solutions.

  1. An increased focus on recruiting new teachers into the profession. This can start as early as middle school andhigh school – identifying students who have an interest in teaching. Then schools could consider, like many have, creating a teacher cadet program that will help guide them through the planning process of becoming a teacher. Odessa, Texas is working diligently with a number of different entities on this issue. Region 18 Education Service Center offers a robust alternative certification program, and Odessa College and the University of Texas-Permian Basin recently announced the ”OC2UTPB Teaching in 3” program aimed at graduating prospective teachers in just three years.
  2. Policymakers should focus on ways to keep the teachers who are already in the profession – especially those working in hard-to-staff schools. This will take an infusion of money to better support public education so that school districts can hire more teachers and lower the student/ teacher ratio.
  3. Set a goal of decreasing the attrition rate from eight percent to four percent. That alone could solve the crisis. Higher pay and better working conditions can help entice currently certified teachers who are not working to come back to work. School districts could also consider reaching out to private sector employers to find people with expertise in certain fields who may have an interest in teaching.
  4. Make teacher certification national instead of state-bystate. Currently, prospective teachers must pass an exam specific to the state in which they want to work. However, if a teacher wants to move across the country now, he or she cannot immediately apply for jobs in the new state because there is no national certification reciprocity. By having a national certification exam, teachers would have more mobility to go where they are needed more easily.
  5. Improve working conditions for teachers by including stronger preparation and mentoring programs.
  6. Consider offering financial incentives for teachers such as signing bonuses, diversified pay, student loan forgiveness, continued strengthening of defined benefits retirement plans, and allowing student teachers to be paid during their student teaching time period. In regard to salaries, each school district has to determine if it is competitive in the marketplace. Are salaries hampering the district from recruiting and retaining staff, or are salaries enabling the district to recruit and retain at a higher rate than others?
  7. Work to build and maintain a positive school culture where teachers want to work – and want to continue working.
  8. Find ways to reduce the administrative burdens placed upon teachers.

Human Resources Departments across the country continue to lament the teacher shortage issue. Leib Sutcher, a research associate at the Learning Policy Institute, states that “Teacher shortages aren’t an issue because they cause a headache for the HR department, but rather because they impact students. Districts are forced to cancel courses, hire unprepared teachers or even hire substitute teachers to fill vacancies.”

Donald O. Clifton of the Gallup Organization once astutely said, “Our greatest contribution is to be sure there is a teacher in every classroom who cares that every student every day learns and grows and feels like a real human being.” Students deserve the most rigorous education we can provide them. But without quality teachers, that can’t happen. Our nation has to start taking the teacher shortage issue seriously, and it has to start addressing the issue with a vengeance. Our future may depend on it.