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Tackling the teacher shortage

School leaders turn to bonuses, affordable housing, outreach to college students and other solutions
At the Spokane Educators Career Fair in Washington last year, teacher candidates look for jobs.
At the Spokane Educators Career Fair in Washington last year, teacher candidates look for jobs.

The bad news seems to be everywhere. The School District of Philadelphia had 190 teaching vacancies in October. From New York to California, enrollment in teacher-preparation programs has fallen by double-digit percentages.

The president of Nevada’s Board of Education called her state’s teacher shortage “horrific” according to published reports, warning that, if conditions don’t improve, “we’re going to all sink.”

Judging by recent media reports, the message seems clear: The United States is suddenly running short of people to teach its children. But schools—especially in troubled cities and isolated rural communities—have always struggled to staff in-demand fields such as science, math and special education. With clear trend data elusive, some experts are unsure whether anything especially new is happening.

But superintendents who have teaching vacancies aren’t waiting for statistics. They are turning to an array of new and creative strategies, such as starting the hiring process earlier, looking farther afield for recruits, offering perks and signing bonuses to new hires, and ramping up efforts to help candidates earn teaching credentials.

Reasons for shortage

Explanations for apparent teacher shortages vary from the macro to the micro—from the state of the national economy to the working conditions in individual schools.

During the post-2008 recession, when states reported widespread teacher layoffs, applications for vacancies surged, according to Christopher Koch, president of the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation, which accredits teacher-education programs.

In Illinois, where Koch served as state superintendent for more than eight years, even struggling districts might get 700 applicants for one elementary school opening. “They were flooded with candidates,” he says.

Once the economy improved and many industries began hiring again a few years later, the surge receded as would-be teachers pursued other employment options.

Observers also speculate that the national conversation about education—rife with politicians denouncing teachers’ unions and loudly despairing over failing schools—may discourage some from choosing the profession. “Educators were put in the position of fighting different battles than they’ve had to do before,” Koch said. “It’s certainly become more politicized, without question.”

Some lay blame at the feet of education reformers who have emphasized new learning standards, testing and scripted lessons.

“We’re losing the autonomy of teachers, teachers making decisions, having voice in what’s best for their kids and their classrooms,” says Rob Weil, director of field programs at the American Federation of Teachers. “People say we want to get the best and brightest into teaching, and then we put them in a situation where we tell them the first thing, ‘We’re going to tell you what to do.’ And then those people don’t stay in, and we wonder why.”

Although the National Education Association says that average salaries for public school teachers fell almost 4 percent, in inflation-adjusted dollars, between 2003-04 and 2013-14, money isn’t the most important factor in preventing shortages, many say.

“It’s not about the pay. It’s about the level of support that teachers need to feel that they have,” says Mary Sieu, superintendent of the 21,000-student ABC Unified School District, near Los Angeles. “It’s completing their credential, it’s getting the professional development that they need to use technology more effectively, it’s about how their administrators are supporting them at their school sites.”

“We’re going to implement some aggressive measures to try to get out in front of it,” says Mike Parker, superintendent of the 1,600-student Hoquiam School District in rural Washington state. “I’d rather be out in front than try to find a teacher in July or August.”

Employment incentives

Before last year, Hoquiam’s teachers typically waited until late spring to announce their retirements—and by May or June, the pool of potential replacements was often depleted.

So in 2015, Hoquiam offered $2,000 to teachers who notified the district by February 1 of their plans to retire. Six took the offer, and for its $12,000 investment, the district got a three-month jump on hiring replacements—a useful head start in a year that saw Parker hire 21 new teachers, nearly 20 percent of his teaching corps.

Like other districts, Hoquiam has also taken steps to deepen its applicant pool, in part by looking farther afield for new teachers. Administrators now drive six hours to attend college career fairs, and Hoquiam has joined 34 nearby districts in a personnel cooperative, which advertises openings, manages online applications, and gives every member district access to all the resumes it has on file. “Prior to that, we tried to recruit solo,” Parker says. “Our net was not as vast.”

In a digital world, district leaders can also expand recruitment beyond state borders: California’s 48,000-student Oakland USD, which had a larger-than-usual 500 teaching vacancies last summer, is exploring outreach to college students identified on LinkedIn as interested in education careers, says Kafi Payne, Oakland’s director of talent development.

Once potential hires are in sight, districts offer new incentives to come on board. Oakland may provide subsidized housing for teachers facing astronomical Bay Area real estate prices, Payne says. In Idaho, Mountain View School District #244—a vast, sparsely populated school system—sometimes helps new hires find places to live in a tight housing market, says former superintendent Greg Bailey, who now leads Idaho’s larger Moscow School District #281.

At Mountain View, Bailey also tried to hire both members of a married couple—a teacher married to another teacher, or to an administrator or maintenance worker. When both spouses are employed in a rural community, the couple is more likely to stay, he says.

Often, hiring inducements are even more straightforward: Last year, Hoquiam offered incoming teachers $1,500 signing bonuses—ostensibly for relocation, although local hires also got a check.

Even when school districts can afford it, the leaders are not always in the position to offer financial incentives. The most obvious solution to shortages in such hard-to-fill areas as math and science would be higher pay for teachers in those specialties, says Christopher Koch, president of the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP), which accredits teacher-education programs.

But when he was state superintendent in Illinois, Koch saw firsthand that the idea of paying teachers different salaries based solely on their subject matter expertise didn’t always survive the bargaining process. “It’s a hard sell with a lot of unions,” Koch says.

And financial incentives have other limitations. Although Parker says the $1,500 signing bonuses tipped several prospects toward Hoquiam, he expects nearby districts to offer the same deal next year. So now he’s considering letting new teachers use a district truck as a moving van. “Down here, we need to be aggressive,” he says.

Discovering local talent

For some districts, developing homegrown talent more aggressively is one way to cope with shortages. Oakland operates a high school magnet program for students interested in education careers.

It’s a new well from which to choose teachers, and it increases the number of students who might go into teaching. Further south, the 21,000-student ABC Unified School District, near Los Angeles, partners with a local community college to offer courses to high school students interested in entering teaching.

Oakland USD also works with local universities to provide on-site courses for classroom aides or paraprofessionals interested in gaining teacher certification, or for teachers who want to add in-demand credentials to their existing certifications. “It’s much easier to have a general education credential and then to transition that into a special education credential than to start without any credential at all,” says Payne, the Oakland administrator.

The district is also taking a more empathetic look at the people it has hired under emergency certificates—152 this year, roughly double the number of previous years, Payne says.

Although hiring uncredentialed teachers is usually perceived as reducing standards, Oakland is collaborating with researchers from the nearby University of California at Berkeley to gather data on its emergency hires. Many of them lack full credentials because they’ve failed the state’s teacher-licensing exam or can’t afford to pay several hundred dollars in fees to take it.

The research aims to “potentially rewrite the narrative” about emergency hires, Payne says, by examining whether these uncredentialed teachers represent a desirable talent pool the district should seek to cultivate.

“They’re saying, ‘I do want to teach, I have my bachelor’s degree, I’ve always thought about teaching but I don’t have a credential,’” Payne says. “We can work with someone to pass the test. What it’s harder to work with someone on is their mindset toward children.”

Shifting standards

Education reformers have spent years working to raise standards for new teachers, lobbying preparation programs to require higher grades and test scores for entry and to increase the rigor of coursework. Now, some worry that perceived shortages could undo that work, driving districts—as evident in Oakland, for example—to lower standards in order to put teachers in front of classrooms.

In the long term, raising standards should help combat shortages by increasing the profession’s prestige, experts say. Lowering the bar to increase recruitment is not the answer, they insist. “We wouldn’t do that in other professions, like medicine,” says Koch of CAEP.

But in the short term, that approach can be tempting—and potentially harmful. “Districts are going to put teachers into the classroom—they need to,” says Benjamin Riley, executive director of Deans for Impact, a nonprofit focused on improving teacher preparation. “Those who figure out that it’s not the career for them—it’s not just a loss for them, it’s one for the kids who end up much further behind than their peers because they didn’t have someone who was effective.”

Ultimately, eliminating shortages means turning teaching into a more prestigious and desirable profession—and that means rethinking the value the nation places on education, experts say.

“Working conditions are the main set of factors,” concludes Richard Ingersoll, a professor of education and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. “Well-paid, well-treated, well-respected lines of work do not have shortages.”

Deborah Yaffe is a freelance writer based in New Jersey.