Teacher shortage at ‘crisis’ levels

By: | August 18, 2015

Many classrooms will remain without a permanent teacher this fall, as the teacher shortage becomes more severe in some states. Major enrollment drops in teacher prep programs signal worsening conditions in the coming years.

Many classrooms will remain without a permanent teacher this fall, as the teacher shortage becomes more severe in some states. Major enrollment drops in teacher prep programs signal worsening conditions in the coming years.

“It’s a crisis,” says Bill McDiarmid, dean of the University of North Carolina School of Education. “I don’t know who will be teaching kids in the future.”

In North Carolina, enrollment in teacher prep programs is down 27 percent in the past four years. In California, it has dropped 53 percent in the past five years. Other states, including New York and Texas, have seen large declines. The greatest shortages are in special education, math, science and bilingual ESL teachers.

The political and economic climate has created a perfect storm, says McDiarmid. Teacher salaries remain low, public school funding is down, and some states have done away with tenure protections. The Common Core, high-stakes assessments, and teacher evaluations based on test results have also scared would-be teachers away from the profession, he adds.

“Against this backdrop, we hear a steady drumbeat of how our schools are failing and teachers are responsible, so that’s a disincentive,” McDiarmid says. “Because of the policy context and new standards and assessments, teachers feel like they have less control over their professional lives and don’t get to exercise their professional knowledge, judgment and skills.”

Arizona vacancies

In late July, Arizona had at least 1,000 vacant teacher positions to fill with only a few weeks left until the school year started.

“This has been a new phenomenon in the last three school years,” says Debbi Burdick, superintendent of Cave Creek USD, a district of 5,400 students located 35 miles north of Phoenix. “Last year, we went the entire year with three positions unfilled. It had never happened before.”

The district paid two teachers to take on extra classes. One other class, which was special education, had a substitute for the year.

Arizona formed its own Educator Recruitment and Retention Task Force two years ago to study the problem. A January report revealed that relatively low pay, high turnover rates that result in little mentorship of young teachers, and a growing workload in an increasingly underappreciated job are turning people away from the classroom.

Cave Creek USD began recruiting teachers nationally this year. The district also offered a $4,000 signing bonus for the fall, which grew the applicant pool. However, many of these candidates were not certified or came from other states and career fields.

“We have amazing educators in the United States, and you look for one who fits with your community and you know is the best hire for your classroom,” Burdick says. “When times are difficult like this, we sometimes jump at someone who comes through the door. We need to pull back and make sure this is the right person for our students.”

At the time of this writing in early August, Cave Creek USD still had two positions to fill.

District-prep partnerships

One potential solution may be for districts and teacher prep programs to collaborate more closely, McDiarmid says. For example, students will have more incentive to apply to a prep program if they know that when they complete clinical work at a certain district, they are likely to get offered a job there after graduating, he says.

Districts should also reassure incoming teachers they will be given respect and autonomy, McDiarmid says. “Schools and districts that offer teachers more opportunities to collaborate and be more in control over what they are doing are more attractive.”