A Nuanced Look at Teacher Shortages

Throughout the public sector we have a growing problem. We have jobs that continue to grow in terms of complexity, are staying level in terms of demand, and are shrinking in terms of supply. This puts in a very dangerous cycle. Education is in the midst of this as we speak.

Well, let me start by saying we are already in a VERY dangerous cycle. The COVID-19 Pandemic has brought this into greater focus, but let’s be clear: the problem existed years ago. In fact, MUCH of this blog is directly inspired by a piece I wrote three years ago. So, the problem is not new, but is amplified in the current environment.

So, given the shortage of teachers one is left to hypothesize as to why. I will do some of the hypothesizing below and also paint a picture of the future — and end with a call to action.

Public Perception

First, let’s examine the public perception of becoming an educator. Education was once a profession appreciated and observed as a calling. This reverence seemed to re-emerge in the opening months of the Pandemic. This sentiment has seemingly waned as the Pandemic has continued and the push for more students to experience in-person schooling has intensified. This, however, is not the only way to look at the changing public perception of education.

  • Homeschool / Private Schooling
    • Some data sources indicate at much as a 400 plus percent increase in homeschooling and increased levels of private schooling during the Pandemic. This increase is most profound among African-American students. The question is whether or not those students will return to public schooling after school returns to ‘normal.’
  • Technology Dependency
    • University of Virginia’s EdTech Evidence Exchange analysis finds that edtech spending is between $26 billion and $41 billion per year. This leads to the perception that we are teacher-proofing our classrooms. The misuse of technology as the primary driver of an educational experience has not proven to be successful, but the more that technology takes on the role of the teacher the potential continued degradation of the role and responsibility of a teacher is worth noting.

Political De-Motivators

Education has become a political punching bag. Whenever it is convenient and/or whatever the problem politicians find a way to blame schools. Even when schools are not to blame, they are often viewed as ‘the fix.’ For example, in Illinois alone there are over 700 education-related bills on the docket this session alone. Whatever ails society, education is assigned to fix – and often without additional resources in order to get that work done.

When whatever legislation is passed if you it aligns with your beliefs then schools should execute it well. If the legislation passed does not align with your beliefs then schools should rebel and assert local control. It just makes for a messy situation.

The most common frame from which schools are used as political punching bags is in the realm of standardized assessment scores. When we examine standardized assessment scores we must do so through a critical lens. Our failure to do so places an over-emphasis on those scores, and in my opinion, serves to create an environment in which it is harder to attract and retain high quality educators.

The bullet points will outline some history and some key points for everyone to consider.

  • Beginning with A Nation at Risk in 1983 and driven through the No Child Left Behind Act nearly two decades ago public schools have been under continued scrutiny to increase academic achievement as measured on standardized assessments.
  • The issue is . . . the value of standardized assessments has long been under scrutiny. This critical lens is often not applied given the level of importance placed on them through media and politics. As a result, they have become a permanent fixture in the discussion of educational effectiveness.

As a quick history lesson / counter-argument, here are a few quick tidbits everyone should be aware of when comparing our national performance to other countries:

  • We out innovate almost everyone. If innovation is based on number of patents issued, we do an outstanding job of creating critical thinkers as we rank 3rd in patents issued in the last 35 years behind only Japan and China. There is no argument that we are in a time of exponential and complex growth. I think most people would value innovation over a test score. That said, when is that last time you have heard this discussed as a positive to promote American public education?
  • Additionally, Keith Baker, in his marvelous research, found no correlation between how a country performs on standardized assessments and their economic development or growth.

The below graphic shows PISA performance compared to Nobel Prizes won (a proxy of intellectual creativity and GDP) to show the correlation or lack thereof. This information is from the World Bank.

Also, this point is always interesting to me. In the United States we have long thought of ourselves as the best country on Earth and the ultimate superpower. Well, if standardized assessments are so important, one would have to wonder how we arrived at this conclusion.

The USA never ‘dominated’ other countries when it came to international assessments such as PISA and NAEP. These measures which we now use to condemn our education system are producing similar indicators of performance as they traditionally have.

The only things that has changed is the value we place on the test(s) AND we are doing a better job at closing gaps for our traditionally underserved students than many other countries. Additionally, with an increased focused on performing better the results have not benefitted in a statistically significant manner. Moreover, using these data points are fraught with error regardless of what the data end up showing. Research from Stanford has found the following:

  • There is an achievement gap between more and less disadvantaged students in every country; surprisingly, that gap is smaller in the United States than in similar post-industrial countries, and not much larger than in the very highest scoring countries.
  • Achievement of U.S. disadvantaged students has been rising rapidly over time, while achievement of disadvantaged students in countries to which the United States is frequently unfavorably compared – Canada, Finland and Korea, for example – has been falling rapidly.
  • But the highest social class students in United States do worse than their peers in other nations, and this gap widened from 2000 to 2009 on the PISA.
  • PISA scores are depressed partly because of a sampling flaw resulting in a disproportionate number of students from high-poverty schools among the test-takers. About 40 percent of the PISA sample in the United States was drawn from schools where half or more of the students are eligible for the free lunch program, though only 32 percent of students nationwide attend such schools.

Retirement Benefits (much of this information is Illinois specific)

  • The state of Illinois is in a budget crisis (and has been for a long time) and this is often blamed on the retirement benefits afforded to teachers. This takes one of the only financial perks of being a teacher and demonizes it.
  • The crisis surrounding teacher retirement has nothing to do with the amount of money teachers or schools have contributed to their retirement. The crisis is a result of lawmakers choosing to not fund their portion of pensions over the course of several years creating an enormous debt margin.
  • The retirement system continues to adjust and in order to receive maximum benefits teachers entering the profession today will have to work until 67.
  • Illinois teachers do not receive social security benefits.

How bad is it?

The facts are alarming (Illinois data):

  • There are over 1700 unfilled teaching positions this year.
  • 85 percent of school districts identified a major or minor problem with teacher shortages in their schools (up from 78 percent a year earlier).
  • More than 60 percent identified serious problems with substitute teacher shortages
  • 89 percent of central Illinois districts and 92 percent of southern Illinois districts had issues with staffing their teaching positions with qualified candidates.

All of these numbers have increased in the past three years.

Given the annual attrition and the number of newly certificated teaching candidates, the math simply does not add up to create enough qualified candidates to serve in our public schools unless teachers move into the state, retired teachers re-enter the profession, degreed teachers who had not sought licensure now do, or the expected and average amount of retirees is significantly reduced. The likelihood of this happening is quite small.

What would result is disquieting. Schools that would struggle the most to fill positions would be small, rural schools who cannot afford to pay well and inner-city and urban schools that many qualified candidates choose to ignore as employment possibilities. As a result, poor students and students of color would be the students most impacted by the teacher shortage befalling our state.

The state of public schools

As I pondered this chain of events, my mind wandered down a very scary rabbit hole. Hence the opening line of the blog about being kept up at night. If public schools are forced to compromise in who they hire in order to fill classrooms, then what is going to set us apart from charters and private schools? One of the defining elements of a public school classroom has been the service of a highly trained and highly qualified teacher to serve our students. If that is no longer the case, it seems to me that future of public education is more at risk due to the teacher shortage than it is as a result of any particular policy or funding formula. Truly, this has a potentially catastrophic impact for schools and (in my opinion) society.

Everything written above was true in 2019. Pre-Pandemic. With teachers leaving the profession at accelerated rates during the past year, these problems will only be exacerbated.

I get it – this seems like a conspiracy theory. Trust me, my brain does not typically work like this, but it seems to be a logical progression of circumstances given the facts and data we are currently being presented.

Call to action

So, my call to action is simple. The educator and teacher shortage is real. Whether this is impacting you or your district now does not matter – it will impact us all in time. Be educated. Be informed. Wear your love of public education like a badge of honor. Advocate.

The bottom line is that when we notice a problem in society we find creative solutions. Look at what states and local municipalities do to compete for business in the form of tax relief and incentives. If we do not look at creative solutions to attract talented people to our profession, we are in trouble. This deserves attention now before this issue becomes a crisis.