Sitting in the large Nashville conference room, I started to develop a strong sense of déjà vu. The title of the panel at the National Summit on Education Reform panel was “The Teacher Shortage: Myths, Realities and Solutions.”
Dan Goldhaber, one of the nation’s foremost experts on education labor markets, kicked things off by reading headlines about teacher shortages from Lansing and Battle Creek newspapers. The punchline was that the headlines were all at least 50 years old.
The reason I’d heard this before is that the examples came directly from a CapCon story published the previous day. They were just as attention-grabbing when read aloud to a national audience of state lawmakers and education reform advocates as they had been online for our faithful Michigan readers to see.
Goldhaber confidently stated that there is no national teacher shortage. Why? Because there is no national teacher labor market. Different geographic regions and teaching subject areas vary in the ratio of qualified candidates for available jobs.
The situation is similarly less than clear-cut in Michigan, despite purveyors of a narrative that Republicans in Lansing have created policies and working conditions that are forcing classroom instructors out in droves.
Unfortunately for the doomsayers, the assertion can’t be supported by evidence. To the extent fewer teachers are available now than five or 10 years ago, it isn’t so clear how many are being scared away or by whom. Labor organizations routinely talk down the state of school finance and teacher pay.
Interviews of outgoing teachers suggest myriad reasons for teacher departures. In 2016, the Michigan Department of Education surveyed 360 teachers who chose not to renew their state certification. Prominent reasons for leaving included moving to another state, a family or medical situation, or a decision to pursue more education. More respondents said they couldn’t find or keep a job than claimed they were dismayed by pay and working conditions.
Behind the revived concern about a teacher shortage in Michigan is the declining number of candidates completing a teaching degree and receiving state certification. But the Education Department doesn’t collect information from local districts, which would give a clear statewide picture.
Reports on the ground are mixed, as CapCon has reported. As of December, Detroit Public Schools Community District said it was still 170 teachers short. But Novi received an average of 123 applicants for 66 full-time teaching openings last year. Farther west, Portage schools received an average of 41 applicants for each position being filled. The number of applicants varied widely based on the specific job posting.
I shared those observations in testimony before the Michigan Senate Education Committee. I also provided data we uncovered that shows far more state endorsements being given out for elementary teachers than middle school teachers, and as many English endorsements as those given out for math and science combined.
Any urgent shortage situation ought to prompt local districts to offer greater pay to teachers in harder-to-fill subject areas. That is one way to send a message to our university education programs: Your students will earn more if they pursue these subject areas. The other immediate way to increase the supply of qualified teachers is to recognize credentials from nontraditional teacher-training institutions. But even that can leave red tape to overcome.
In August, the Education Department finally approved the group Teachers of Tomorrow to approve candidates for schools. This group attracts career-changing professionals to enter teaching. Yet after a few months, the state only considered a tiny handful of them ready to enter the classroom. For hundreds of these prospective alternatively certified teachers, a bureaucratic rule means they would first have to sit in a room with high schoolers and retake the SAT to prove they have the needed basic skills.
Improving the teacher preparation pipeline will be a legislative focus in 2018. But the long-term state of the teaching profession also merits attention. College Board surveys indicate that fewer and fewer college-bound students are considering a career in education. That may be at least in part because the next generation of college graduates face a wider variety of professional opportunities.
Maybe it’s time to transform the old industrial model of schooling and let future teachers innovate beyond classroom walls and district boundaries, and earn bigger rewards for delivering top-notch instruction.
Perhaps it’s time for the talk of teacher shortage to lead to talk of rethinking the possibilities of the teaching profession.