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A Tale of Teacher Shortages

Recruiting & Hiring

Here’s one history lesson you won’t find in your schools’ textbooks. 

Have you noticed the deluge of news articles about the teacher shortage lately? Writers across the country declare that there’s a crisis upon us. Without enough teachers, class sizes are increasing and more schools are relying on long-term substitutes to lead classrooms — to the detriment of student learning.

The reason for vacant teaching positions varies depending on whom you ask: teaching doesn’t pay as well as other careers, too few students graduate with education degrees, licensing requirements are too strict, or the current political climate is unfavorable to educators.

Is this really a new problem for districts?

Let’s take a step back and take a look at the teacher shortage from a historical perspective.

Using Google Trends, we can gain a broader view of the teacher shortage beyond what is reported in the media. Take a look at the news pieces about the teacher shortage: the number of articles skyrocketed in August of 2015 after a slight surge during the earlier part of the year.

Why August? Most likely, districts started noticing difficulty filling openings early in the year, but the start of the school year triggered desperation around unfilled positions.

News Articles Published on the Teacher Shortage

Compare this graph to the one below, which looks at web searches. Although searches have jumped in August as well, we can see that people have been consistently looking for information on the teacher shortage even when no articles were being published.

Web Searches for “Teacher Shortage”

What can we learn from this?

Digging even deeper reveals that today’s shortages have been a long time in the making. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 mandated that districts hire “highly qualified” teachers — a requirement that constricted the number of potential teaching candidates. A few years later, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA 2004) mandated that school districts have highly qualified teachers and staff to meet the needs of every special education student. That meant giving students the resources and support they needed, like competent special education teachers and speech language pathologists, but also led to problems finding great candidates with the proper licenses.

We can see that the teacher shortage is not unfamiliar to districts: severe shortages have plagued districts in the past as new regulations are passed, but gave way to an overabundance of candidates during the Great Recession. And although the economy bounced back, district budgets didn’t recover as quickly, or as well. So teacher salaries remain low, and students still don’t see education as a viable career.

What can we do about the shortages?

In the long-term, we have to change the story about working in education. Teachers in the United States have long suffered from public misconceptions about what teaching truly entails, and face immense pressure and demands on their time. Few students are graduating with education degrees — fewer still even enter the profession. It doesn’t have to be like this. In other countries, like Finland, Singapore and South Korea, teaching is a prestigious, well-compensated career. Students from these countries aspire to be a teacher, because educators are widely viewed as respected professionals.

Let’s change the narrative and show that teaching is an incredibly rewarding (and viable!) career. That won’t happen overnight, but it’s not impossible to achieve.

Annie GrunwellAnnie Grunwell

Annie is a writer and part of the award-winning content team at Frontline Education. She's passionate about learning, exploring data and sharing knowledge. Her specialties include substitute management, the teacher shortage and best practices in human capital management.