Opinion: Teacher Shortage Cry Misses Real Crisis in Teaching Supply

By Kevin Huffman | August 9, 2015

Since I first entered the classroom as a bilingual first-grade teacher 23 years ago, education policy has been informed in large measure by a key alarmist claim: There is a massive impending teacher shortage.
The claim comes and goes, but is enjoying a renaissance in recent weeks with an oft-expressed view that we are losing teachers rapidly, hence we should do everything we can to make the profession more desirable.
The sentiment is admirable and important, but the underlying claim has a major problem. It simply isn’t true.
There have always been shortages in particular regions and particular subject areas. The media’s ceaseless determination to treat this as a “national shortage” is as wrong-headed now as it was five, 10 and 20 years ago.
First, the frequently cited statistic that around 50 percent of new teachers leave the profession in the first five years has been thoroughly debunked. The most recent analysis shows early attrition at less than 20 percent.
Second, the “impending shortage” language comes from estimates of teachers who are eligible for retirement in the near future. Teacher eligibility for retirement is a skewed data point that holds little relevance. Because of public sector pension rules, many teachers are eligible for full retirement — meaning they will eventually qualify for a full pension — after 30 years of service, by the time they hit 52 years old.
When news reports repeatedly say that “half of America’s teachers will be eligible to retire over the next decade,” they paint the picture of a graying workforce riding out its last days. Yet, a typical 42-year-old teacher in the classroom falls in this data set too. By this metric, every field in the country faces an impending shortage.
Furthermore, most teachers who are eligible to retire, don’t —  at least not right away. In Tennessee, for instance, between 10 and 20 percent of teachers eligible to retire generally do in a given year. The average age of retirement is over 60; the 52-year-old retirees are few and far between.
Why is this? In some cases, teachers delay retirement because pensions don’t kick in immediately or because teaching longer and earning higher pay ultimately increases pension value. These are the same kind of economic decisions that drive any profession’s retirement rate.
A more important and less discussed reason is this: Most teachers like their jobs. They like teaching kids. They are good at their work, and find it rewarding. Tennessee’s annual survey of teacher satisfaction —  taken by tens of thousands of teachers — came out in late July, showing that 79 percent of teachers agree with the statement, “Teachers at this school like being here; I would describe us as a satisfied group.”
Teachers are generally happy and like their jobs. That seems like a good thing. Who would be distressed by that news?
Well, anti-reform activists for one. They rely heavily on claims of unhappiness and turnover when arguing against modern reform policies.  Indeed, unions and others use the “people are going to leave!” threat as a PR wedge against unloved policies . And they’ve been fairly successful pushing this angle.
The claim that teachers are unhappy and leaving in droves has become a favorite data-free media trope. The narrative is helped along by the social media sub-genre of “take this job and shove it” letters from some angry teachers on their way out the door. Everyone loves a sticking-it-to-the-boss missive, and when these also cite education reform policies, the media is readily seduced.
In Tennessee, when the state implemented a significant overhaul in teacher evaluations in 2011, we began to hear regularly the “everyone is leaving” claims. My colleagues and I were deeply concerned —  if true, this would be a very serious indictment of the policy changes. As it turned out, the claims weren’t true. Teacher attrition and retirements remained low. And while teacher opinions remain varied about the policies themselves, actual job satisfaction is high.
Research shows that teacher retention —  and success — is driven largely by on-the-ground factors like their relationship with the principal, the support they get from their school, and their community’s engagement and support. As we implemented significant reforms in Tennessee, teachers actually rated their work environment higher than ever, thanks in large measure to the hard work of local school and district leaders.
What many of these local leaders will tell you is that there is no widespread teacher shortage but there is a massive supply gap in certain fields and areas. Some regions —  with high cost of living or low access to universities — have had and will have a hard time attracting talent. And we continue to produce far fewer math and science teachers than we need as a country. At the same time, nationally, we produce a massive oversupply of elementary teachers.
In rural districts, it is not uncommon for a fourth-grade job opening to draw dozens of resumes, while a high school biology opening is almost impossible to fill.
Schools of education have experienced a decline in enrollment in the last few years — what some like to point to as “the canary in the coal mine”. But, for many years, districts hired half or less than half of the teachers produced by education  schools, so there is plenty of room for a market correction.
Broadly, we need to reframe the shortage discussion. Claims of a widespread impending shortage distract from a critical conversation about high-need areas and teacher quality. We rarely discuss supply-and-demand items that any other field would have taken on years ago.
Why is it that a mediocre physical education teacher makes the same salary as a high-performing physics teacher? What should teacher providers do to limit the supply of low-need subject areas and grow the number of high-need teachers?
We have plenty to figure out about teacher hiring, success, satisfaction and retention. But we don’t need false claims about widespread shortages to drive this discussion. We are going to have enough teachers. Let’s focus instead on whether they are the right teachers, teaching the right subjects, with the right pay, respect, and support.
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