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America’s National Teacher Shortage: Looming Crisis or Media Myth?

Derek and Heather Schwartz discuss why the “teacher shortage” narrative may be overblown

Photo by Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images

Students are going back to school this month. But according to many news sources, there won’t be nearly enough teachers to greet them. The Washington Post has warned of a “catastrophic teacher shortage.” ABC World News Tonight called it a new “growing crisis,” and the Wall Street Journal warned of a “dog-eat-dog” scramble to hire underqualified instructors. Heather Schwartz, a senior policy researcher at the Rand Corporation, explains why she thinks the “national teacher shortage” narrative is overblown, why declining teacher morale is a real story, and what’s really happening in American public education today.

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Heather Schwartz tries to determine the extent of the national teacher shortage, and untangle which of the issues facing teachers are chronic, and which are specific to 2022.

Derek Thompson: So, in the last few weeks, we’ve seen all these news headlines about a national teacher shortage. Before we get into the details of what exactly is happening here under the hood, I’d love you to give me a thesis statement on how you feel about the news narrative of a “catastrophic” and “national teacher shortage.” What do you make of that narrative and whether or not it’s true?

Heather Schwartz: I think it’s overblown, but it is a messy story to summarize into a neat single soundbite, because the shortages vary so much by district and state. So yes, there are many districts that have shortages. Are they “catastrophic”? I don’t think so.

Thompson: So, let’s talk about where there is a teacher shortage and what teachers there is a shortage of. Because, to your point, this is clumpy, this is spiky, it’s not a national phenomenon, necessarily, but there are clearly districts where shortages exist. There might even be entire states where shortages exist and there might be specific kinds of teachers that districts are struggling to hire enough of. So, help us understand the geography of this spiky shortage and which teachers, which kind of teachers, are affected.

Schwartz: And there might be shortages of teachers in certain schools and not others, even within the same school district. So, there is just layer upon layer of variation here. So, right now, it looks like shortages are extreme in Florida and Arizona. We’ve been seeing coverage about districts recruiting military vets to come into the classroom in Florida, or switching to four-day school weeks in Arizona, for lack of teachers. So, that’s one thing. There’s geography as a source of variation.

Then there’s specialty area. Historically, long before the pandemic ever started, there have been shortages in special education teachers, substitute teachers, math teachers, science teachers. And now, fast-forward to where we are now, the areas where we hear district leaders saying they have the strongest shortages are in substitute teachers, far and away. That is the area where the most districts say they have the greatest shortage. Bus drivers, special education teachers, and to a lesser extent elementary teachers, math teachers, science teachers, and other areas.

Thompson: Why are those positions historically so hard to hire for?

Schwartz: Historically, these are areas of growth. So, there’s an interesting paper that came out last year, in 2021, looking over a 30-year span from the late 1980s up through 2018. And, over that time, the number of teachers nationally has grown from about 2.5 million to 4 million. So, there’s a significant increase in the total number of elementary and secondary teachers. What’s been driving that? The authors hypothesize, which I think is really reasonable, that middle and high schools have increased the number of courses required for our math and science, thus triggering the need for more math and science teachers.

The number of students who’ve been classified as needing special education services has grown significantly, thus requiring a greater number of special education teachers. And then at elementaries, there’s been a class-size reduction over that 30-year period, from something like an average of 25 students per class down to somewhere around 21 or 20. I’m not remembering the exact number there, but if you’re decreasing class size, you’re increasing the number of teachers required to serve a given number of students.

Thompson: One thing that I’m hearing from your analysis, is that a lot of trends that are historical are being treated as acute and specific to 2022. So, we’ve seen historical difficulty to hire science teachers. And historical difficulty to hire special ed teachers. And historical difficulty to hire substitute teachers. We’ve also seen, over the last few decades, that the Deep South and some rural areas have consistently struggled to hire enough teachers, and again, we’re seeing that. There was a 2022 government survey that found that vacancy rates for special ed teachers, specifically, was four times higher than for physical ed instructors over the previous few years.

So, one theme that I think one could write, pulling up from all of this, is that a lot of news headline writers in the summer of 2022 are treating as specific to this year issues that are relatively chronic in the education industry. Is that a true upshot, no. 1? And no. 2, what, if anything, is special to 2022?

Schwartz: Yeah, I do agree with that. I do agree that media has been covering chronic problems and treating them as if they’re not chronic. I do think that the pandemic has exacerbated chronic problems. For example, I think the substitute teacher shortage is more severe now than it was pre-pandemic. And why? Well, districts are competing with other industries for low-paid workers.

Another thing I think is different now, during the pandemic—that’s not just the same old chronic problems that we’ve been seeing for decades—is that teacher morale has plummeted. For example, in 2016, before the pandemic ever started, 75 percent of teachers in nationally represented surveys said that the stress and disappointments of the job were worth it. OK, now we go forward two years, in 2018, 72 percent of teachers said that. Now, we flash into 2020, just when the pandemic started, 58 percent of teachers said that the stress and disappointments of the job were worth it. Then, in 2021, 51 percent of teachers. Now, 2022, 44 percent of teachers. So, only 44 percent of teachers are saying the stress and the disappointments of the job are worth it compared to 75 percent six years ago.

This excerpt was edited for clarity.

Host: Derek Thompson
Guest: Heather Schwartz
Producer: Devon Manze

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