COMMENTARY: Do We Really Have a Teacher Shortage and, If We Do, How Can We Fix It?

The American teacher shortage is headlining news stories and infiltrating social media, although there’s little consensus on whether this shortage is new or if it even exists. My Twitter feed is having a rumble between those who say the teacher shortage is a myth and those who point to districts like Newark where, as of June, there were 500 teaching vacancies.

Then there’s the reality on the ground: in New Jersey, both urban and suburban superintendents say when they post a job for a physical education or elementary school teacher they get 20 applicants instead of the typical 200.  Some say (off the record) they’d settle for a warm body, which does not portend well for the quality of our teacher workforce.

So what’s really going on? Do we really have a teacher shortage? 

I think we do, and this signals the need to undertake for an examination of our obsolete salary models and entry barriers, especially in light of COVID-19 (see this new report) and related cultural shifts.

Here are a few factors that impede a robust teacher recruitment and retention model:

  • The traditional way we compensate teachers—low starting pay, gradual pay hikes, and then a big pay-out at retirement through generous pensions—is unappealing to younger people in the job market (I have three kids there right now) who value career mobility and clear upward trajectories. They should wait 25 years to collect a windfall while laboring at the same-old-same-old? Not a chance.
  • Over the years we’ve made it harder to become a teacher. This is well-intentioned as we try to raise our desultory K-12 achievement levels (the U.S. ranks  36th out of 79 developed countries in math and 13th in reading) and elevate the teaching profession. But is charging hundreds of dollars for teaching licenses really the way to go? Is forcing prospective teachers to take ridiculously onerous tests that have nothing to do with classroom effectiveness the answer? Here’s Dan Weisberg, former CEO of TNTP: “Most research has found that standardized tests are weak predictors of a teacher’s ability to help students learn….[P]assing certification exams is far from a guarantee of effectiveness, and failing is far from a guarantee of ineffectiveness.”
  • We’ve learned over the years that students of color benefit enormously from teachers who look like them. Yet these teachers are often blocked from classrooms because the licensing tests are curved towards white Americans  (this study examines the American “push-out and keep-out” system), thus limiting our ability to diversify the teacher workforce.  Here’s a more local example: a bill passed unanimously by the New Jersey State Legislature that eliminates the edTPA—a teacher-qualifying assessment clearly biased against Black and Latino prospective teachers— sits unsigned on Gov. Murphy’s desk. We’ve blocked some of our best potential teachers from entering classrooms because they can’t pass a test that proves nothing about their instructional acumen and might be designed for them to fail.
  • COVID-19! Has it ever been harder to be a teacher? Add in the “Great Resignation” —people quitting jobs because they can get higher-paying or more fulfilling ones— plus our toxic culture wars and it’s not hard to understand why schools are struggling to fill staff openings.

Yet a teacher shortage is hard to quantify. That’s because we have lousy data. especially in NJ, which is why two years ago JerseyCAN recommended the state perform “a robust study to ensure we have the data we need to drive future decisions” on teacher recruitment and retention, which it has yet to do.  We’re all over the place (hence my Twitter feed): here Andy Rotherham of Bellwether debunks the “teacher wage gap,” pointing out various statistical flaws. Here Paul Bruno, professor of education policy at the University of Illinois, explains that it’s not useful to speak generally about a national teacher shortage when supply varies dramatically across different parts of the country and for different subject areas. We’ve long had teacher shortages–way before COVID–for English Language Learners, students with disabilities, math and science students. And even before the pandemic the U.S. Department of Education reported that the number of newly licensed teachers was down 20% to 30% from a decade ago.

Add in the pretty steep drop in K-12 student enrollment and you know things are complicated.

They’re complicated further by New Jersey’s (most of America’s) system of judging teacher applicants by inputs, not outputs. We see this pattern elsewhere: for instance, the State Department of Education’s accountability rubric for school districts called NJQSAC gives top grades to districts like dysfunctional Asbury Park— unlinked to student learning, teacher quality, and fiscal management.

Why do we value a passing grade on a teacher test more than classroom effectiveness? Why aren’t we focused on student outcomes rather than checking boxes? Given COVID-related learning loss and the need for more effective teachers, why does our system of certification remain so inflexible? Instead of being stuck in the institutionalized educational system John Dewey envisioned in the early 20th century, why aren’t we rethinking how we train, certify, evaluate, retain, and pay teachers?

There’s good work out there on this. Bob Goodman heads the NJ Center for Teaching and Learning, which provides  alternative pathways for physics and chemistry teachers. (Quick video here.)  Sharif El-Mekki is CEO of the Center for Black Educator Development which creates innovative apprenticeship programs for aspiring Black teachers where the focus is not how well teachers do on the edPTA or Praxis but how much they raise student achievement.

If we stop relying on input models like NJQSAC and pivot towards output models like how much students learn, if the Murphy Administration’s DOE, as rigid and dysfunctional an agency as we’ve seen, lightens up on archaic and irrelevant accountability rubrics and trusts school leaders to control which teachers stay in the classroom, Newark–districts like Princeton too!—might be filling those open teaching slots.

Yes, school leaders do that already through the teacher tenure system. But let’s get real: with 98% of teachers rated “effective” or “highly effective” (might be 99% but we don’t know because Murphy’s DOE doesn’t believe in robust data systems) evaluators can’t be serious; no real profession has that degree of success. Yet if leaders get serious, really make job security dependent on student growth instead of how many professional development credits or college degrees earned, we can elevate the profession and workforce quality. And here’s a wild thought: what if our input-driven salary guide shifted towards a output system where teachers garnered higher salaries for moving the needle on student growth? What if districts were free to pay more for hard-to-fill slots in STEM and special education? 

I know, I know, I’m dreaming. In what universe will union leaders allow teachers to be treated as something other than interchangeable widgets

To make that shift would require us to not only say we want to elevate the teaching profession, but really mean it.

And, despite all the bluster out there, I’m not sure we do. But baby steps, right? Expand alternative certification pathways, like those created by Goodman and El-Mekki. Get rid of certification tests and licensing fees; instead, partner aspiring teachers with master teachers and judge their effectiveness–as both apprentices and veterans— by how much kids learn. Create robust data systems so we can plan long-term strategies for recruiting and retaining our best teachers instead of panicking at what was a predictable shortfall.

Surely that’s better than the alternative we’re living in now.

 

 

Laura Waters

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