Coping with Crisis: Teacher Shortages Will Last Longer than the Pandemic
Educational Policy Brief #50 | By: Lynn Waldsmith | February 24, 2022
Header photo taken from: National Education Association
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Photo taken from: Education Week
America’s teacher shortage, which was worsening even before the pandemic, is now reaching crisis levels in many parts of the country as a growing numbers of educators are not planning to ever return to the classroom. School districts are scrambling to think of ways to cope with the immediate situation, including calling in the National Guard in some cases, and urging policymakers to act now to stem the tide of teaching professionals who are leaving.
“It’s a problem that existed pre-pandemic, it has been exacerbated by the pandemic, and the teacher shortage will not disappear with the pandemic,” Michigan State Superintendent of Public Instruction Michael Rice told Axios earlier this month.
A pre-pandemic (2018) state-by-state map from the Learning Policy Institute shows that teacher shortages were already severe in many parts of the country, with “teaching attractiveness ratings” varying based on compensation, teacher turnover, working conditions, and qualifications.
But the pandemic has severely worsened the problem. According to data released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in local government education rose by 29,000 in January but is down by 359,000, or 4.4 percent, since February of 2020.
The reason for the teacher shortage boils down to a basic supply and demand problem: more and more teachers are retiring or quitting as the pandemic makes a stressful profession even more exhausting and frustrating, while fewer students are graduating from universities to fill the available jobs.
Based on a survey of its members, the National Education Association released a statement earlier this month that indicated 55 percent of educators are thinking about leaving the profession sooner than they had originally anticipated.
“After persevering through the hardest school years in memory, America’s educators are exhausted and increasingly burned out,” NEA President Becky Pringle said. “School staffing shortages are not new, but what we are seeing now, is an unprecedented staffing crisis across every job category. This crisis is preventing educators from giving their students the one-on-one attention they need. It is forcing them to give up their class planning and lunch time to fill in for colleagues who are out due to Covid. And, it is preventing students from getting the mental health supports needed.
“This is a five-alarm crisis,” she added. “We are facing an exodus as more than half of our nation’s teachers and other school staff are now indicating they will be leaving education sooner than planned. If we’re serious about getting every child the support they need to thrive, our elected leaders across the nation need to address this crisis now.”
Putting aside all of the mounting obstacles teachers have faced in the past few years by trying to navigate through the coronavirus crisis and, most recently, the omicron variant, the national teacher shortage has been decades in the making. A drop-off in hiring teachers actually began during the financial crisis of 2008, as the birth rate began to decline. At the same time, chronically underfunding education has resulted in lower salaries and less generous pensions for teachers compared to other professions requiring a college degree, and pay equity still has a long way to go.
An Economic Policy Institute analysis shows that the wage gap between teachers and the remainder of the comparably educated workforce was about 21% in 2018, compared to only 6% in 1996. And while salaries for teachers have gone up 0.7% in the last quarter, that progress was just half the 1.5% average for all civilian workers. Besides older teachers who are opting to retire earlier than they might have, younger teachers are being lured by an abundance of better paying options.
But money is only the tip of the iceberg. Teachers continue to endure a litany of other grievances, including the politicization of curriculum, frustrations over standardized tests, concerns about class size, a lack of autonomy and inadequate resources and mentoring.
For administrators who need more adults in schools right now, desperate times call for desperate measures. School districts facing staff shortages have implemented actions ranging from cancelling school, shortening the school day, returning to remote learning, relaxing requirements for substitute teachers, and even calling in the National Guard.
Besides enlisting civilian state employees, including herself, to volunteer as substitute teachers, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has deployed the National Guard to teach in classrooms on an emergency basis.
The move has drawn mixed reactions, including gratitude from many parents but criticism from some who view it as a slight against teachers and a move that could create anxiety for some students whose communities have historically had hostile experiences with law enforcement.
Photo taken from: The Los Angeles Times
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In January, police officers in Moore, Oklahoma served as substitutes, which drew both support and criticism from those who felt it wasn’t appropriate for armed officers in full uniform to teach. So far, New Mexico has been the only state to use National Guard troops in a substitute teaching role, but they have been called upon to drive school buses in at least 11 states.
In Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer recently signed a bill that temporarily allows school support staff – including bus drivers and cafeteria workers — to substitute teach with just a high school diploma. The state House Education Committee is also considering a Republican-sponsored bill that would allow districts to hire not-yet-certified education majors as paid teachers with their own classrooms for up to one year.
But education leaders say stop-gap measures like emergency substitute teachers and even teacher bonuses aren’t enough to address the problem of staff shortages over the long-term. In addition to increasing salaries for teachers, Michigan State Superintendent Michael Rice wants to see the state offer scholarships to education majors, extend loan forgiveness to current teachers, provide better mentoring of new educators, and ease restrictions on accepting teacher licenses from other states.
In California, some districts have been using state and federal Covid-19 recovery funds to increase teacher compensation and develop “high-retention pathways into teaching” Through teacher residencies and Grow Your Own (GYO) programs that recruit local community members into teaching, districts helped recruits with tuition reimbursement as they completed coursework toward their credentials.
GYO programs and residencies are considered important strategies for recruiting more teachers of color.
In any event, teacher shortages are a complex problem requiring multiple approaches to ensure that teachers get the support, respect and autonomy they deserve.
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Pre-pandemic (2018) teacher shortage state-by-state map:
Learning Policy Institute’s recommendations to address teacher shortages: