How bad is the teacher shortage? Depends where you live.
The new fall semester has just begun in Mesa, Ariz., and Westwood High School is facing a shortage of math teachers.
Phoenix, a public school that serves more than 3,000 students in the populous desert town east of Westwood, still has three vacancies in that discipline. The principal, Christopher Gilmore, never started the year with so many math positions.
“It’s a little troubling,” he said, “going into a school year knowing we don’t have a full staff.”
Westwood, where most students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, is one of several public schools across the United States opening their doors with fewer teachers than expected. Nearly three-quarters of principals and district officials said this summer that the number of teaching applicants was not enough to fill their open positions, according to a national survey by Education Week. Other surveys released this year have suggested that parents are deeply concerned about staffing and many more teachers are eyeing a exit.
But while the pandemic has led to an urgent search for teachers in some areas, not every district is suffering from shortages. The need for teachers is driven by the complex interplay of demand and supply in a tight job market. Salary matters, and so does location: Well-paying suburban schools can usually attract more candidates.
If anything, experts say, the turmoil of the recent pandemic can be expected to worsen old inequalities.
“It’s complicated, and it goes back to before the pandemic,” said Desiree Carver-Thomas, an analyst at the Learning Policy Institute. “Schools serving more students of color and students from low-income families often bear the brunt of teacher shortages.”
For many years, it has been particularly difficult to find teachers or even fill places in rural schools for subjects such as mathematics and special education. And there has always been a dire need for more teachers of color in the United States. According to federal data collected during the school year ending in 2018, nearly 80 percent of public school teachers were white. Most of his students were not.
In Arizona, where starting salaries for teachers are below the national average, the shortfall is “severe” across the board, said Justin Wing, assistant superintendent of human resources for Mesa Public Schools, the district where Mr Gilmore works.
“I think it’s probably been like this for at least 10 years,” said Wing, who is also an analyst with the Arizona Schools Personnel Administrators Association. But this year, he said, feels worse.
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He partially attributes the problem to low pay, and has seen districts in neighboring states like Texas and Nevada rub salt in the wound by advertising their tuition pay on social media and on billboards along Arizona highways.
Wing data from the previous school year, about four-fifths of teaching positions (measured in terms of full-time equivalents) in Arizona schools were to be covered in ways less than ideal – by support staff, for example, or teacher in training.
And about one-third of the positions remained completely vacant, which often meant that existing teachers had to take more classes.
The challenge for struggling districts is to cover positions in a way that not only fills seats but also serves students, said Tequila Brownie, chief executive officer of TNTP, a non-profit that focuses on district administrations on staffing and student achievement. Provides consultancy services.
“Everyone is talking right now, frankly, hot bodies,” she said. “The quality of teachers still matters. You will never get quality if you don’t reach quantity first.”
Over the past two years, several states, including New Mexico, Florida, Alabama and Mississippi, have attempted to address or pre-empt the shortage by increasing teachers’ pay.
Others have loosened certification requirements. In Arizona, a new law makes it easier for aspiring teachers without a bachelor’s degree to gain work experience in the classroom. In Florida, where state officials last year reported more than 4,000 teacher vacancies, some military veterans may be granted temporary teaching certificates.
And in some rural districts, where wage increases may be out of reach, school officials are putting entire school days on the chopping block.
In Missouri, where teachers receive the lowest average salaries in the country, rural Hallsville School District superintendent John Downs said the pool of qualified applicants has dried up in recent years. A few days before the start of the school year, positions in speech language pathology and mathematics were still vacant.
This year, Hallsville schools are trying to wow teachers with a four-day workweek. “We are competing against more affluent districts that may offer more attractive wage benefit packages,” said Mr. Downs. “So we decided we needed to think outside the box.”
Hallsville is not alone. In Missouri, 25 percent of all districts will be on a four-day program this fall. Condensed week is common in New Mexico, Colorado, Oregon, Idaho and South Dakota, and is beginning to emerge in other states such as Texas.
Even before the pandemic, the number of schools on the four-day model increased from 257 schools in 1999 to more than 1,600 in 2019, according to national data compiled by Paul Thompson, associate professor of economics at Oregon State University.
“As a small district, we just couldn’t compete financially with the larger districts,” said Kate Wright, a parent of two children in elementary and middle school, who expressed hope that Hollesville’s new program Will attract strong applicants. “It’s hard to expect a teacher to move to Hallsville for a low salary.”
It is not clear how the four-day model – in which school days are longer but weeks are shorter – affects learning. While children and families may benefit from the flexibility of a three-day weekend, some research suggests that student achievement may suffer if the total number of teaching hours drops significantly.
Shauna Woods, a third-grade teacher in Hallsville, said teachers were looking forward to Monday’s holiday — especially on the heels of two challenging years helping students navigate the pandemic. In anticipation of the change, she said, “The one thing teachers in my district kept talking about was, ‘Next year won’t happen. It’ll be better next year.'”
Kim A. Anderson, executive director of the National Education Association, said the shortage in many districts is worrying, but the news is not entirely bad.
“We are, in fact, making progress with regard to teacher shortages,” she said, adding that increased funding from districts, as well as the US rescue plan passed by Congress in March 2021, was helping to turn the tide.
In Virginia, where starting salaries for teachers exceed the national average, Prince William County Public Schools, one of the state’s largest districts, offers more than $53,000 to freshmen with bachelor’s degrees. Teachers with experience or graduate degrees can earn thousands more.
Lisa Harris, an algebra teacher at Patriot High School in Knoxville, District, said she had been teaching for 22 years and never wanted to leave the profession. “As far as teacher shortage is concerned, of course I see the news,” she said. “You hear it nationally. I know it. But to be honest, in Prince William County schools, I don’t see that much.
In fact, many schools in Prince William County saw the exact opposite. For the current school year that began on August 22, the district created hundreds of new positions for teachers and teaching assistants compared to the previous year.
Throughout the year, administrators track potential applicants – especially those with certifications in math, science, special education and multilingual education.
“It’s a joke among those of us who work in human resources,” said Michelle Colbert, who works in human resources at the district. “When you go to a college fair, and you see a candidate for math, it’s like everyone in the room is making their way to that candidate.”
In fact, in some districts, teacher vacancies can be attributed not only to turnover but also to the creation of new positions, said Richard Ingersoll, an expert on education staff with the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania.
This can skew perceptions of scarcity, especially in the context of longer-term trends. The total number of people working in public education has risen for nearly a decade, federal data shows, partly in recovery from the widespread losses following the 2008 recession. And the number of teachers has grown faster than the number of students, Dr. Ingersoll’s research has found. (This may continue. Student enrollment has declined during the pandemic, and may continue to shrink in the coming years due to demographic changes.)
But in chronically low-wage places, the pandemic has undermined teachers’ sentiments, said Brent Madin, who leads the Next Education Workforce initiative for teachers at Arizona State University. “If we are serious about recruiting people into the profession, and retaining people in the profession, then in addition to things like compensation, we need to focus on working conditions,” he said.
As the fall semester begins, principals like Mr. Gilmore at Mesa are focused not only on filling open positions, but also on keeping the teachers they have. Westwood could use three more math teachers, but there are already 23 of them, introducing students to the basics of algebra, geometry, and trigonometry.
Mr. Gilmore is also working with Dr. Maddin in the state of Arizona to implement a teaching model where teachers with different skills work together to teach large groups of students. The program, Mr Gilmore said, allows student teachers – potential future applicants – to gain experience in school, and it can also help experienced teachers feel less isolated in the classroom.
“I think the pandemic has brought exhaustion to an already stressed sector,” Mr Gilmore said. “And when we bring back that joy of teaching, students will enjoy learning.”