A new report from the Brookings Institution encourages states and school districts to use more targeted solutions to address persistent teacher shortages in high-needs subjects and hard-to-staff schools.
Judging by the headlines, public schools in the U.S. are in crisis mode, struggling with the first major teacher shortage since the 1990s.
The New York Times, The Washington Post, National Public Radio and, yes, The Seattle Times have all contributed to a growing perception that there just aren’t enough teachers to do the job. And since 2011, mentions of the phrase “teacher shortage” in U.S. news coverage spiked more than 1,300 percent to nearly 4,000 times last year, according to a new report by Dan Goldhaber, director of the Center for Education Data and Research at the University of Washington.
Last fall, the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction surveyed principals across Washington state and found that 20 percent said they were in “crisis mode” when it came to hiring teachers. An additional 70 percent indicated they were struggling.
Goldhaber and co-author Thomas Dee, of Stanford University, however, say their research suggests the headlines obscure the real problem. They dispute the notion that there’s a nationwide teacher shortage. Instead, they say, their research suggests a more persistent and acute shortage of teachers in certain subjects and schools.
Specifically, they found it’s harder to fill classroom vacancies in math, science and special education and find enough teachers for campuses that serve a high share of students living in poverty.
“We don’t want to suggest there isn’t a problem,” Goldhaber said. “There is one. It’s just not a problem that’s national.”
“It’s a problem that remains particularly hard for disadvantaged schools and … for teachers with in-demand skills,” he added.
Goldhaber isn’t exactly sure why some teaching positions remain so hard to fill. In Washington state, his previous research found a high turnover rate among special-education teachers, whereas math and science vacancies don’t attract enough well-trained candidates.
Still, Dee and Goldhaber offered specific ideas on how to tackle the acute shortage areas. Those recommendations are included in their new report and a policy brief released Wednesday by The Hamilton Project, an offshoot of the Washington, D. C-based Brookings Institution.
The authors argue that school districts could use financial incentives to attract and keep more teachers in high-need subjects and hard-to-staff schools. But that’s not likely to happen in a state like Washington, where virtually all districts adhere to the same statewide teacher-salary schedule.
“It is not surprising in a place with a strong teachers union that you have relatively little differentiation” in pay, Goldhaber said. “It undermines the purpose of the union, which is to bargain on behalf of all members.”
He and Dee also recommend that districts start their teacher recruitment efforts earlier and more aggressively, while at the same time expanding student-teaching slots in schools where they consistently have vacancies.
That’s because student-teachers tend to remain at the schools where they trained, Goldhaber said.
At the state level, the authors propose making it easier for teachers to use their teaching licenses across state lines. Currently, the nation has a patchwork of licensing rules that require teachers to complete certain courses or tests before they can work in a new state.
The report also encourages states to expand or start so-called alternative routes to teacher licensure.
While many teachers get into the classroom through a college of education, fast-track licensing programs could be designed to place more candidates directly into high-need classrooms, the report said.
With each recommendation, the authors note that policymakers should carefully develop and evaluate their approaches to determine whether they work.
“Talking about this problem in a non-nuanced way is likely to create non-nuanced solutions that don’t get you very much in return,” Goldhaber said.