Defining a teacher shortage

Federal data shows a small in teachers, with tiny increase in the student-teacher ratio
By: | Issue: February, 2016
January 18, 2016

Despite anecdotal evidence that schools across the country face hiring challenges, statistical proof of a shortage is hard to come by. Federal data for 2011-12, the most recent available, shows a decline of less than 1 percent since 2007-08 in the number of public school teachers, and only a tiny increase in the student-teacher ratio.

The number of college students majoring in education has fallen only slightly in the past quarter-century. And while the U.S. Department of Education lists state-by-state teacher shortage areas each year, it does not quantify them, making it difficult to extrapolate trends.

Still, that same list shows most states, or regions within them, facing longstanding shortages in multiple disciplines, especially math, science, special education and bilingual/ELL education. In special education, “the shortages are real, they’re persistent, and we need to deal with them,” says Deborah Ziegler, director of policy and advocacy at the Council for Exceptional Children. “Every year, most of the states identify a shortage of special ed teachers.”

And whatever the official numbers, local school administrators say their shortages are legitimate, and problematic. In Idaho’s 2,400-student Moscow School District #281, Superintendent Greg Bailey struggles to find math and science teachers. “We’re lucky if we get one applicant, two applicants,” Bailey says. “It’s getting worse each year.”

According to federal data, enrollments in teacher-preparation programs have fallen sharply, from 728,000 students in 2009-10 to just under 500,000 in 2012-13, a decline of more than 30 percent. Programs in California, Texas and New YorkÑstates that perennially produce more than 10,000 new teachers every yearÑsaw similar double-digit drops.

“The word is out: Don’t go into teaching,” says Rob Weil, director of field programs at the American Federation of Teachers.

But Richard Ingersoll, professor of education and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, diagnoses the problem differently. “We don’t have shortages in the sense that we have an underproduction of new teachers,” Ingersoll says. “We produce more than enough. But we lose too many.”

Ingersoll’s data shows that 40 to 50 percent of new teachers leave education within five years, higher turnover than in such high-stress professions as policing and nursing. And averages mask considerable variation among districts and even among schools within the same district, Ingersoll says.

Teachers leave because of unpleasant working conditionsÑnot only low pay and poor benefits, but also deficits in such low-cost intangibles as administrative support and professional autonomy, he says.

“If the job was attractive, it could get people and keep them,” Ingersoll says.