Motoko Rich of The New York Times wrote a feature article for today’s print edition on the looming teacher shortage and the nationwide scramble to fill available teaching positions. Predictions of a future teacher shortage are hardly new. Consider this Senate hearing in 1997 where the then frequently made prediction that we would need “2 million new teachers over the next 10 years” was repeated by Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts:
This chart is a good summation as to what the current conditions are. This year, K-12 enrollment reached an all-time high and will continue to rise over the next 7 years. 6,000 new public schools will be needed by the year 2006 just to maintain current class sizes. We will also need to hire 2 million teachers over the next decade to accommodate rising student enrollments and massive teacher requirements. And because of the overcrowding, schools are using trailers for classrooms and teaching students in former hallways, closets, and bathrooms. Overcrowded classrooms undermine discipline and decrease student morale.
The prediction seemed a lot less dire when compared to the fact that, at the time, we credentialed about 200,000 new teachers every year — or roughly 2 million over 10 years. This time, however, it might be different.
Ms. Rich’s article cites that budget cuts following the Great Recession led to dismissals across the country, which may have led to fewer college students willing to accumulate debt for uncertain job prospects. Further, with the economic recovery showing sustained growth over the past few years, there may be a larger array of more attractive job prospects for the college educated. Whatever the cause, the result is that school districts are having to dig deeper into the labor barrel to find people people willing to teach or even to find people with the appropriate credential to teach. Ms. Rich’s article pays special attention to California which had 45,000 teaching candidates seeking credentials as the recession came on in 2008, but since then the number of candidates in programs has dropped more than 50% to barely 20,000 in 2012. The Golden State used to issue roughly 20,000 credentials a year, but by 2012 that number was 15,000 – there are currently 21,500 spots open this year. Ms. Rich cites federal data showing a 30% decline nationwide in the number of people seeking to become teachers.
This fact, and the potential reasons behind it, makes this teacher shortage potentially very different and one to which we should pay close attention. While it may indeed be true that we had a hiccup due to uncertain job prospects during the Great Recession and that competition from growing technology fields could be factors in this shortage, Ms. Rich did not examine another possibility that might make this shortage far harder to overcome with typical labor market responses:
We’ve made teaching suck the past 15 years.
I just wrote about the groundbreaking collaboration between the Badass Teachers Association and the American Federation of teachers on the Quality of Workplace Life survey released this Spring. While the 30,000 respondents to the 80 question survey were not statistically sampled, their input is an important first step towards understanding the consequences of our current education reform environment. From physical and mental health to support and respect from policy makers and administrators to workplace bullying and harassment to time and training for new curriculum demands to over testing to their general enthusiasm for their profession, teachers sent loud and clear warnings that there is a crisis in teachers’ working conditions.
It isn’t hard to imagine why. For two 8 year Presidencies, we have, via legislation and policy, made increasing demands that our schools and school teachers raise their students to overcome inter-generational poverty with practically no additional help whatsoever and under the threat of punitive school and job level sanctions. We have narrowed the curriculum so that non tested subjects play a smaller role in our children’s education. We have a counter factual but extremely well funded by dark money campaign to sue away teachers’ modest workplace protections and weaken their unions. We have state after state in the Union insisting on using value added modeling of student standardized test scores for teacher evaluation and retention despite the long known fundamental flaws with that approach. We have prominent governors of both major political parties declaring open warfare on teachers and calling public education a “monopoly” that needs to be broken up or going on national cable news to declare that the “national teachers union” needs a “punch in the face.”
Can I say for certain that there is a causal link between these phenomena and the growing claims of a teacher shortage? Not at this time. But the possibility did not escape journalist David Sirota:
What is especially worrying is how this time, talk of a teacher shortage could potentially become very long term unless we pivot quickly on school policy. We have had more a full generation of students K-12 who have grown up in schools under No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. These students are the most tested and potentially test exhausted students in our nation’s history. The BAT/AFT survey shows that their teachers may be facing unprecedented workplace expectations and stress at a time when school budgets are only beginning to recover, if at all, from cuts made during the Great Recession. And no matter how professional and upbeat a manner teachers strive to portray for their students, nobody can keep that up every day without fail.
We know that the decision to become a teacher is historically one that is deeply tied to a student’s experiences in school itself. A prospective teacher learns to appreciate school and develops early, usually very incomplete, ideas and ideals about what it means to be a teacher from over 13,000 hours spent with teachers teaching from Kindergarten until the end of high school. David Hansen explains teaching as vocational work, deeply rooted the individual seeking to become a teacher:
It implies that he or she knows something about him or herself, something important, valuable, worth acting upon. One may have been drawn to teaching because of one’s own teachers or as a result of other outside influences. Still, the fact remains that now one has taken an interest oneself. The idea of teaching “occupies” the person’s thoughts and imagination. Again, this suggests that one conceives of teaching as more than a job, as more than a way to earn an income, although this consideration is obviously relevant. Rather, one believes teaching to be potentially meaningful, as a the way to instantiate one’s desire to contribute to and engage with the world.
What kind of positive vocational sense can we expect young people considering teaching to develop in a school system beset by narrowed curricula and diminished teacher autonomy, by calls to eliminate poverty without any assistance whatsoever, by dishonest campaigns to break their unions, and by national politicians insulting them at every turn?
In 2006, David Berliner wrote eloquently on “Our Impoverished View of Education Reform” where he strongly questioned the “one way accountability” system set up via high stakes standardized testing:
All I am saying in this essay is that I am tired of acting like the schools, all alone, can do what is needed to help more people achieve higher levels of academic performance in our society. As Jean Anyon (1997, p. 168) put it “Attempting to fix inner city schools without fixing the city in which they are embedded is like trying to clean the air on one side of a screen door.”
To clean the air on both sides of the screen door we need to begin thinking about building a two-way system of accountability for contemporary America. The obligation that we educators have accepted to be accountable to our communities must become reciprocal. Our communities must also be accountable to those of us who work in the schools, and they can do this by creating social conditions for our nation that allow us to do our jobs well. Accountability is a two way process, it requires a principal and an agent. For too long schools have thought of themselves only as agents who must meet the demands of the principal, often the local community, state, or federal government. It is time for principals (and other school leaders) to become principals. That is, school people need to see communities as agents as well as principals and hold communities to standards that insure all our children are accorded the opportunities necessary for growing well.
Our consistent failure to heed Dr. Berliner’s warning may now be resulting in a genuine shortage of teachers, not merely of teachers being credentialed but of potential teachers in the pipeline eager to join the ranks. Things need to change. Now.