Wherefore and Whither The Teacher Shortage?–Supply

I will never leave my current position. I won’t ever risk leaving the tenure cocoon until I’m ready to leave teaching. I expect to stay seven more years in this job and then move to another state, where I will try to find get a teaching job but will weep no tears if I don’t.

Why? I’m too old to risk being on the market. Barry Garelick couldn’t find a full-time job, and I believe he still works just part-time with kids at a middle school. I doubt I agree with one in five words the man writes but that’s not why he didn’t find work.  I guess he needs an American version of the program Lucy Kellaway has put together  for fifty somethings in the UK.  But in the US, if you’re highly educated and past 40 but think being a teacher sounds rewarding, network like mad, get an internship job first, and don’t spend a fortune on tuition, is all I can say.

But didn’t I just say there’s a teacher shortage?  Well, sure. But age discrimination is everywhere. And there are other caveats.

Ed schools seem to be producing too many elementary school teachers.   One of the first big pieces I ever wrote referenced a study showing that just 77,000 of the 186,000 teacher class of 2010 took a job teaching, and it’s likely that most of the ones who didn’t were elementary school teachers. The best piece on this teaching shortage, skeptical and thorough (and, alas, 4 years old) is still Stephen Sawchuk’s Colleges Overproducing Elementary Teachers, Data Finds.

Notice Sawchuk points out that the data shows this. Note he also points out that “states flush with elementary teachers can face shortages, particularly in urban and rural areas.” And there are many irregularities. For example, Maryland produced 1000 elementary school teachers and hired 1,100, 723 of them new teachers. But over half of the new teachers came from out of state. Wait, what? As Sawchuk notes, teacher supply is complicated.

Another reality: teaching jobs are vastly different depending on the adjectives describing the schools and the students. Some principals can be picky and selective, rejecting and selecting based on their personal preferences. Other principals are the employer equivalent of  drunken out-of-towners looking for love in the bar at closing time: taking what they can get.

These analogical drunks run schools with the wrong adjectives. The schools or their districts are extremely rural, extremely urban, extremely poor, extremely expensive or, of course, two or more combined.  While charter schools definitely contribute to the increase in teaching populations, I don’t think heavy charter presence leads inevitably to a shortage for that state or district, but that’s a data analysis beyond my scope.

So here’s something I always wonder: when those desperate principals are looking, where are the English teachers, the history teachers, the elementary school teachers who change careers or work as substitutes when they can’t find jobs? Are they applying at the schools with the unattractive adjectives?

Reporters don’t often make this clear. In my case, I wanted to work in high poverty districts, although I never got desperate enough to apply to charters or inner city schools. If I couldn’t nail down employment among the suburban poor, I vowed to  move to North Dakota. My kid’s grown and in another state, so I could pretend it was an adventure. Fortunately, I was able to stick within those parameters and find tenure without relocation. Eventually, I probably would have sought out inner city schools, if I had to.

But that was me, with $50K in loans that I could only write off with a teaching job, loans I had no intention of paying off my own self. Suppose you’re a young credentialed college graduate with only a moderate ambition,  no major loans and a parent to help pay them off. Would you be willing to take that 2 am job in the extreme zones? Or were you just interested in teaching with reasonable kids, reasonable pay, reasonable cost of living and reasonable locale offered up by an attractive employer well before the midnight hour?

Then there are the college educated folks working as adjunct professors or barristas or bus drivers that I wrote about last time. Why aren’t they considering teaching?

Well, there’s this other thing to remember: Teaching is brutally hard for some people.

Many otherwise ordinary people can succeed and thrive in teaching. But the job can also crush a healthy ego as easily as an egg.  Who is going to have an easy time, who is going to struggle and thrive, who’s going to slink away with a mental scar that they often flinch away from? Typically, although not always,  counted among the failed are  many Dewey- and dewy-eyed idealists who envision themselves enrapturing a group of wide-eyed, attentive diamonds in the rough who had never once encountered a teacher who really cared. Then they face reality, often with no mentoring and no support. The results are ugly. Some recover. Some don’t.

I wrote about a breakdown I witnessed with a long term sub, one who’d taught in India and had originally planned to teach here in America.  Every teacher has these anecdotes, I think. If you want to read a book about the breakdown of an inept teacher whose psyche was severely unglued by teaching, I suppose you can suffer through Ed Boland’s Battle for Room 314, a truly revolting book about a terrible person whose choices are inexplicable, not least because he clearly despises his students. Upside: the self-absorbed, condescending little jerk  who thought he’d become a Great Savior, is permanently defeated by his shortcomings and other inabilities and he’ll be cringing from his failures for the rest of his life. Downside: the horrible little man got a book deal out of it, as well as all sorts of positive attention.

Sorry. I didn’t write a whole piece on that book because, well, you can see. Where was I?

College-educated people who are unhappy with their economic lot in life choose under-employment or insecure employment are already dealing with a sense of failure. Maybe they know they aren’t cut out for a job that can wreak psychological devastation, even one with  tremendous job security, enviable union benefits, and fantastic vacation time. Teachers  who abandon the field when they can’t find the job they want could be making the same calculation: why risk  soul-wringing failure when they already feel unwanted?

And so, the disconnect. Teaching seems to be easy, seems to offer a  ready supply of jobs, but  the jobs in classrooms with capable kids and involved parents  are much harder to come by, and hey, maybe  it’s not always so easy.

Sing me no happy talk about charters and choice. Megan McArdle’s mea culpa got some pushback, but the public has made it fairly clear it’s not on board with education reform.  Eventually, everyone will realize that lousy teachers don’t cause low test scores. And as I observed in my last piece, even assuming charters are making it more desirable to teach in low income areas, they’re consuming more teachers and burning through them at a faster rate.

TFA found another way to convince people to enter the field: make it a resume boost, but that story stopped selling, eventually.

There’s one sure way to convince more people to take on teaching pay a whole lot more. Pay so much the salary makes it worth while for people to move to Alaska, teach in Detroit, take a crappy one-bedroom apartment in Salinas for a teaching job in Palo Alto, risk losing tenure, or live in the remote frozen lands of North Dakota.

And none of these measly 20% increases, or $4K signing bonuses. It’s going to take six figures to get reliable sourcing for the schools with unattractive adjectives.

But that makes no sense. (Ha, had you fooled, didn’t I?)

Leave aside the states that need to revisit pay because they are constantly losing teachers to their higher-paying neighbors. Understand that the expensive  districts are paying through the nose already (average teacher salary in the Bay Area is nearly 6 figures as it is).  Understand that 3.5 million people seem to find the existing pay just fine.

Remember, too, that these are government jobs, with government pensions, and our state government pension commitments give responsible people nightmares.  As it is, pensions are a looming threat. Shortages are already leading to higher salaries in many states, and that only makes the commitments even more threatening.

Then there’s the fact that increasing the teacher supply invariably means lowering teacher standards even further–which, of course, I’ve never argued against. But lowering standards while dramatically increasing pay is just adding insult to injury for the taxpayers. And the reformer path to improved teacher quality–threatening teacher pay and benefits, offering merit pay,  reducing job security–only makes the supply problems more severe, as the charter experience shows. That is, of course, what education reformers have never really grasped, and it’s why their efforts have mostly failed.
 

I prefer reducing demand, preferably without too much of a baby bust. Faithful readers can probably remember when I’ve discussed that before, but everyone else will have to wait for the next post.

PS–I don’t want to make this whole series sound deeper than it is. I don’t have any hard research under wraps. I just wanted to discuss the various lines of thought that others have offered, and respond.

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