Restoring the balance

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Yesterday, Ed Week's indefatigable Stephen Sawchuk dove into the headspinning statistics on how many new elementary teachers get certified and how many actually end up getting hired. His hard-won conclusion: any way you slice it, every year teacher preparation programs produce far more elementary teachers than districts could ever need.

Some of the people Sawchuk interviewed raised a perfectly legitimate question: what difference does overproduction make? Lots of college students major in fields with less than bright job prospects. Isn't that their choice?

Actually, education degrees are different. Training to become an elementary teacher depends on a resource that an ed school has very little ability to expand: the number of suitable placements for clinical training. Novice teachers have to observe and be observed by effective teachers if they are to become effective themselves. But as we showed in our study on student teaching, the number of willing and able mentor teachers is probably no more than one in 25. Admitting and training all comers inevitably means that a lot of candidates who would have been good teachers will be placed with mentors who at best are mediocre and at worst will turn them off to the profession altogether.

There's another issue with overproduction -- less tangible, perhaps, but just as important: Preparation programs that don't raise a high enough bar for entry send a powerful signal that "anyone can be a teacher." That's not the approach that medical or law schools take. No wonder, then, that doctors and lawyers command higher status (and higher pay). And no wonder that the American Federation of Teachers has recently called for a "bar exam" for teaching that, if implemented as laid out, would largely make this oversupply problem a thing of the past.

We tip our cap to Sawchuk not only for bringing much needed attention to this issue, but for also digging so hard to try to present the most accurate figures possible. His queries prodded us to re-examine the estimates for demand for elementary teachers that we presented in a table in an earlier PDQ post. Below is a corrected version of the table. Like Sawchuk, we hasten to emphasize that these remain estimates, albeit ones based on the best available data. Our State Teacher Policy Yearbook now recommends that state departments of education follow Maryland's example and conduct regular analyses to get a more precise handle on the balance between teacher supply and demand.

Estimates of elementary teacher production and demand in selected states:

(Sources: Supply -- 2011 Title II Reports, State departments of education; Demand -- State and Federal labor bureaus, State departments of education)