Is There a Teacher Shortage on the Horizon?

Is There a Teacher Shortage on the Horizon?

Teacher attrition due to layoffs may break the teacher supply line nationwide.

On April 6, 2010, Jack O'Connell held a press conference to announce that California faced a teacher shortage. The state's superintendent of public instruction cited anticipated retirements over the next ten years, teacher attrition through layoffs, and a break in the supply line from teacher preparation universities as major factors in creating a critical shortage of teachers in the state. After a lull in the past five years, student enrollment in California is predicted to grow, creating a mismatch between supply and demand for teachers.

However, most of the attention in California was drawn not to a potential shortage of teachers, but rather to threats to school funding and potential layoffs of teachers due to the state's budget crisis. During a specific moment of crisis, a politicization of teacher shortages, current or projected (some would say imagined), can cause one to overlook what might be a real issue.

Certainly, this was the case the last time teacher shortages were predicted. In the previous two decades, school districts were able to address increased enrollment and predictions of teacher shortages by tapping into an increased supply of new teachers from universities. While there were genuine shortages of teachers in some places, they tended to exist in certain rural and urban situations. And of course, the supply of good math, science and special education teachers has been tight for a while.

Steady Teacher Attrition

But let's go back and look at the claims made by California's schools chief to see if there really might be a teacher shortage on the horizon in this bellwether state. Events in California are often a harbinger for things to come elsewhere.

O'Connell cited a report from the nonprofit Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning (CFTL). As California struggles to provide a robust student and teacher data collection and reporting system, groups like the CFTL provide data that point to trends in the state. The CFTL teamed with the California State University and University of California to prepare a report, California's Teaching Force 2010: Key Issues and Trends. The report cites some facts that point to a looming teacher shortage:

  • In 2009-2010, 32 percent of the workforce was over fifty years of age, placing about a third of teachers on track for retirement in the next ten years.
  • The number of new teachers hired has dropped 50 percent in the past two years.
  • The number of enrollees in teacher preparation colleges dropped from 75,000 to 45,000 from 2001-2002 to 2007-2008.
  • The number of teaching credentials issued declined by 35 percent since 2004.

In addition, the report notes that whereas student enrollment had decreased in recent years, it is projected to grow by more than 230,000 by 2018-2019.

What is not emphasized, but should be highlighted here, is that there has been a steady attrition of teachers in the state. Many teachers have left the profession after being laid off during the fiscal crisis—26,000 as of April 2010. It's estimated that 40 percent of teachers provided with statutorily required layoff notices in the spring of 2010 in California did not get their jobs back by the first day of the new school year. Others have left the profession because of dissatisfaction with teaching in general, reduced compensation due to salary reductions or furlough days, or a decrease in monetary support for supplies and textbooks.

Attrition Rates across the Nation

In the past, it is teacher attrition that has pushed a teacher shortage from theoretical to real, as new teachers from the supply pipeline have always been sufficient to replace retiring teachers. School districts could also draw from a reserve pool of teachers to plug gaps. This reserve pool traditionally has consisted of teachers who have left the profession, to raise families in some cases, or who obtained teaching credentials but did not seek positions right away. It is estimated that roughly 50 percent of newly qualified teachers do not enter the profession upon graduation. This reserve pool has been depleted, not augmented, by layoffs as, it is argued, teachers give up on the profession as a result of the harrowing nature of layoffs and a sense of abandonment by the education establishment.

The report concludes that this is a tough time for California's teachers, characterized by increased demands for improvements to achievement for all students (a reasonable demand, of course) and reduced resources and instability caused by the fiscal crisis that grips the state. It is no wonder that teaching is a less than attractive profession for new college graduates.

The National Center for Educational Statistics, a federal body that reports to Congress, showed the Digest of Educational Statistics for 2010 that the total number of K12 teachers nationwide increased by 12 percent from 1999 to 2009, easily meeting the demands of increased enrollment over that time. The overall national pupil-teacher ratio declined from 16.1:1 to 15.3:1 during that same period. At a glance, it would seem that there was no teacher shortage, at least until 2009.

A 2007 policy brief from the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future noted that teacher attrition tends to tip the supply equation into deficit. Of course, it would seem that the teaching ranks have been diminished since 2009 by the economic downturn and resultant layoffs, even with the last federal stimulus to schools. In May 2010, the Obama administration estimated that 100,000 teachers would lose their jobs nationwide, and the federal stimulus to schools was implemented to negate this threat. Once this federal money dissipates by the end of 2012, it is expected that more teachers will lose their jobs if the economy fails to ignite.

The extent of this anecdotal decline is not yet showing up in the data. The most recent Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS) by NCES was in 2007-2008 and predated the full impact of the economic crisis. The Teacher Follow-up Survey usually follows SASS by one year and seeks to provide information about teacher mobility and attrition in grades K-12. The most recent survey, in 2008-2009, shows that 8 percent of public school teachers left the profession. (By comparison, the attrition rate was 6.6 percent in the mid-1990s.) Among public school teachers with one to three years of experience, the rate in 2008-2009 was 9.1 percent.

The retirement rate has remained steady at about 2 percent of teachers since the 1960s. It would seem that schools have been able to manage a 10 percent attrition rate (8 percent leavers and 2 percent retirees) by tapping into the supply provided by universities and the reserve labor pool of former teachers. But the rate of attrition seems to be trending higher, and we have yet to see the impact of the financial downturn in the numbers.

Perhaps the warning from California that the supply line of new teachers is disrupted may be worth a closer look. It might not be as easy as it has been in the past to churn out new teachers from the universities, as higher education too has been hit by the financial downturn. It is also important to note that the NCES predicts record student enrollment every year until at least 2018.

It would seem that school districts should at least position themselves for a potential shortage once the economy starts to improve. It is time to rebuild relationships with universities in order to attract student teachers and interns. It would be wise to harness the full power of the Internet, perhaps including social networks, to reach out to the newest generation of potential teachers. Most importantly, it is prudent to retain the teachers you have by providing support and mentorship during these challenging times. This will have a positive impact on student learning and will shave costs in staff development overall as schools keep well-trained and highly qualified teachers in the classroom.

Eamonn O'Donovan is a former principal and currently serves as an assistant superintendent of human resources in Southern California.