4 Ways We’re Getting The Teacher Shortage Crisis All Wrong

The end of the school year is approaching, which means that principals are pulling out all the stops to recruit new hires and fill those hard-to-staff positions. After all, there’s a major teacher shortage across the country, so schools need to act fast to pick up any solid free agents they can find. Just like pro sports, am I right?

That sketch definitely exaggerates how teacher recruitment works, but you might not know that if you listen to some of the conversations going on about America’s “teacher shortage crisis.” Our national dialogue usually discusses teacher shortages like a monolith, but according to a recent report from Bellwether Education, we’ve really missed the mark.

It turns out that teacher shortages are far more nuanced and complex than we realize. It’s not just about America needing more teachers; we need more teachers in certain subjects, and in certain places. We also need more strategic policies and recruitment practices to help make that happen.

Check out the 87-page report if you want the full scoop, but for those who like it nice and concise, here are four things the study highlights about America’s teacher shortage crisis and how we’re getting it wrong.

#1. Shortages Are Limited to A Handful of Areas

When you hear conversations about “the national teacher shortage,” that doesn’t mean that every school or district has a revolving door of open positions. For the most part, “teacher shortages” are limited to high-needs subject areas like science/math (STEM), special education (SPED), and English-as-a-second-language (ESL). In other words, it’s the acronyms that have all the jobs.

Despite what you may hear, some content areas are actually overstaffed. The Bellwether report identifies social studies and general elementary teaching positions as far easier to staff than other fields, as the number of teachers being licensed in those areas exceeds the number of vacancies. In contrast, many STEM devotees overlook the teaching profession all together, knowing that their earning potential is much higher in the industry than in the school system. As a result, many schools struggle to find and maintain quality science or math teachers each year.

If you want to find a teaching job, STEM, special ed, and ESL are your best bet.

#2. The Fine Arts are Getting Overlooked

It seems like we always hear that fine arts subjects are struggling to find funding in our public schools. What you may not realize though, is that those subjects struggle to find staffing, too. While STEM positions win the gold medal for being the hardest to staff, foreign language and art education jobs are not far behind.

Over the past twenty years, more than half of all states have identified a shortage in foreign language teachers. The Bellwether report also shows that just under forty percent of states identified a shortage in career tech and language arts teachers in the past two decades. That gives a whole new meaning to “supporting the arts in public schools.”

Humanities majors, worry no more about the stereotype of the “starving artist.” Get out there and get certified to teach.

#3. Shortages Differ In Both Consistency and Magnitude, Often Depending on Location

The Bellwether report also reveals how the “national teacher shortage” is limited to some geographic areas more than others. Of course, while areas like STEM and special education are in high-need everywhere, we also have to take into account how consistent and severe those teacher shortages are in different places across the map.

For example, states like Montana, South Dakota, and Oklahoma have had more consistent luck with finding and keeping SPED teachers than states like Kentucky and Tennessee have. Obviously, there are consistent, national shortages in SPED teachers, but the magnitude of those shortages are more pronounced in some states than others.

The same thing is true of ESL shortages. Take places like Texas for example, where English language learners are prevalent. The consistency of Texas’ ESL teacher shortage has basically mirrored Wisconsin’s over the past two decades, though Texas has a much dire need. Understanding these geographical disparities is foundational to making sound policy decisions to address shortages.

Which brings us to the last point…

#4. We Can Work To Fix Teacher Shortages

Yes, teacher shortages are a legitimate concern, even if the national conversation around them has been pretty generic up until this point. However, with a more nuanced understanding about where teacher shortages are and how they’ve been created, we’ve already found successes in addressing them.

So far, some districts and states have made small gains by introducing pay differentials, stipends and bonuses, and even loan forgiveness programs. However, instead of pushing for these initiatives at scale, the Bellwether report argues that most states have passed the buck by looking for easier ways to shore up new teachers.

“Rather than enacting policies such as differential pay and licensure reciprocity, states tend to create reactive policies to address teacher shortages. One of the go-to policies states implement when experiencing a teacher shortage crunch is to lowering admissions standards for teacher preparation programs.”

Instead, Bellwether argues that states should expand policies like differential pay and loan forgiveness that would keep high standards for teachers in place, while still adding incentives to join the profession. Kentucky is one such state that’s looking to lead the way, recently announcing a new loan forgiveness program that would help recruit more minority teachers into the teaching force.

With a deeper awareness of existing shortages around the nation, hopefully more states will step up and follow our lead.

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