Are big teacher shortages around the corner?

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Today, a test of your policy chops.

What do the following three statements have in common? 

1. It's been X years since A Nation at Risk and we still haven't solved [fill in blank];
2. The medical profession would always/never do [fill in blank]; why not the same for the teaching profession?
3. The sky is falling! Over the next X years, unprecedented numbers of teachers are quitting/retiring! Who will replace them?

The answer: They each are about equally likely to be used in the opening paragraph of most teacher quality reports.

These statements are not just ubiquitous and unimaginative. They tend to play into our fears and biases. 

Take teacher shortages. 

For as long as I can remember, we have been standing on a cliff about to fall off into a massive teacher shortage.

Don't get me wrong. There are real shortages of ELL, special ed and secondary STEM teachers. Some rural schools also face serious staffing problems—even when it comes to elementary teachers.
But the truth that the headlines bury is that we have been systematically overproducing teachers in most subject areas for years. Here's some of the supply and demand data we have collected for the most recent year available (2012-13), comparing the number of elementary teachers who are prepared with how many are needed (for the full table, see here).

In the past few months, there have been new reports that there's a big drop in enrollments in teacher prep programs, causing a lot of people to worry that we won't be able to fully staff schools in a few years. Nothing good happens when fear drives our decisions. In this case, institutions will be encouraged to keep admission standards low and states will toy with lowering the rigor of their licensing tests.

If government projections are even remotely accurate, the drop in teacher prep enrollment isn't likely to lead to general shortages, not at their current rates. Further, a decline is not necessarily a bad thing, provided it isn't the better prospective candidates who are making other career choices. While universities might like the resulting tuition revenue, it's not healthy for a profession to systematically overproduce, and not only because it suppresses wages. 

The reality is that there is not going to be a single solution to real shortages. 

For instance, teacher prep programs weren't attracting enough candidates for STEM or ELL or SPED even at the peak of their enrollments, so declining enrollments are not going to create a new problem and will hardly exacerbate an old one. 

When it comes to finding qualified STEM teachers, districts and states must be willing to pay some teachers a lot more than others, depending on the value of their skills in the marketplace, something which most have refused to do, at least in a meaningful way. Also, let's not discount the importance of removing those policies which discourage qualified persons from teaching, such as putting up roadblocks to people who have real content expertise but have not completed the state-mandated coursework or requiring any new teachers to start at the lowest step on the salary schedule no matter what their backgrounds. 

Special education and ELL shortages will only be solved when institutions start capping the number of candidates admitted to oversubscribed elementary programs and divert eager aspiring teachers to these areas—made all the more eager because their pay is also higher.

We know that the solution to the rural problem is not to double or triple the number of statewide candidates. What have those practices gotten us? Just double or triple the number of candidates who still have no interest in living in a remote area. 

The key to addressing rural shortages lies in increased investments in technology so districts can "pipe" in specialized teaching rather than trying to staff each position. And of course pay is a factor too. Forget those nominal stipends. We need to pay these teachers enough money to serve as a real incentive to relocate somewhere for a couple of years. The only other permanent fix to rural shortages is a common solution in other countries but probably a nonstarter here in the US: require all teachers to serve a few years in hardship areas.

Let's close as we opened: 

1.In the 32 years since A Nation at Risk, we've been unable to solve specialized shortages through generalized overproduction.
2.The teaching profession would do well to take a page from the medical profession which consistently, systematically aligns supply with demand.
3.And last but not least, let's remember that doomsayers have found it really hard to make the sky fall. 

Let's show some imagination and courage as well, crafting real solutions to solve real problems.