The Teacher Shortage is Bad. Education Culture Wars are Making it Worse
Education Policy Brief #87 | By: Rudy Lurz | September 21, 2023
Photo taken from: richmond.com
This fall, schools around the country opened their doors. Parents took pictures of their smiling children on the first day of school. When these kids arrived for their first day, many were greeted by a substitute teacher. Dozens of districts began the school year with unfilled teaching positions. DeKalb County in the metropolitan Atlanta area had over 200 unfilled positions as the school year began. Neighboring Cobb County had a similar number of vacancies before a hiring blitz of over 500 new teachers in the last month of summer vacation allowed them to begin the year fully-staffed. Broward County in Florida had over 800 vacancies a week before the school year began, and held a last-minute job fair in a desperate attempt to fill them. Travis County in Texas also held a hastily-planned job fair just before the start of the school year in an attempt to fill over 500 vacancies.
These are not aberrations, but rather the norm. In town after town, district after district, students are starting school with either a substitute or a brand-new teacher hired days beforehand without prep time for the upcoming year. School administrators simply cannot fill the open positions. Special education teachers, along with qualified math and science instructors, are in especially short supply. Given the fact that schools are legally obligated to provide instruction for students with individualized education plans (IEPs), this shortage is especially stressful for district administrators and building principals. Even when districts find qualified candidates, nearly 50% of new teachers leave the profession within five years. That means that for the lucky districts that are able to fill their positions, they will spend thousands of dollars helping new teachers with onboarding, licensing assistance, and professional development, just to do it all again in a very short time span.
In this climate of labor shortage, many GOP-run states are exacerbating the issue by pursuing culture wars against educators. Powerful advocacy coalitions such as Moms for Liberty, a group recently labeled as an extremist organization by the Southern Poverty Law Center, are pushing a radical education agenda that includes pulling nearly 2500 books from school libraries and stifling classroom instruction on painful topics such as slavery and segregation. Policy actors have proposed stiff penalties such as revoking licensure and even felony charges for teachers who do not adhere to these measures. This has resulted in a chilling effect on anything that could be considered even remotely controversial in the classroom. In such a toxic atmosphere, it is no surprise that teachers are leaving the profession and applications have slowed to a trickle on district job boards.
When I served as a legislative intern in the Pennsylvania State Senate in 2014, the concern among GOP lawmakers was that there were too many Pennsylvanians graduating with education degrees and not enough positions available for them. There was a big push to guide these students into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) majors which conceivably had better job prospects after graduation. At the time, each job posted in most Pennsylvania districts would have dozens of applicants, resulting in a ton of work for district HR departments to try to sort through them all. With an average teacher salary of over $70,000 per year, Pennsylvania ranks just outside the top ten in the nation for teacher pay. Lawmakers were upset, perhaps understandably, that Pennsylvania was putting in the resources to train new teachers that were leaving the state after graduation to go to Maryland, New York, Ohio, or Virginia.
Teaching was difficult in the 2010s. I have been in the profession since I graduated from the University of Florida with my Master’s degree in 2007. The challenges, however, were predictable. Attacks on teachers were normally centered on student performance on standardized assessments. The common charge was that public schools were failing their students and parents should be able to take their kid’s allotted per-pupil funds and use that as a voucher towards the tuition of the private school of their choice, or, at the very least, be given the freedom to choose a different public school in the district.
I can talk with other educators and parents about school choice and vouchers. That’s a different dialect of the same common language of education. I can talk about incentivization of teacher pay and whether or not high-stakes testing accurately represents student learning. These conversations make sense to me because one can argue logically in support of them. I can respect opposing viewpoints, even if I disagree with them. I was annoyed at times in the 2000s and 2010s, but I never considered leaving the profession because of what policy actors and/or parents said about education.
The atmosphere is different now. The question is no longer whether or not teachers are failing students. Now it is whether or not teachers are corrupting students. The rhetoric of organizations such as Moms for Liberty insinuates that educators are somehow brainwashing children into embracing the LGBTQ+/CRT/so-called “woke” agenda.
In my career, I taught students who supported President Bush, President Obama, Senator Kerry, Senator McCain, then-Governor Romney, President Trump, President Biden, and numerous third party candidates. I was able to communicate with parents of wildly different viewpoints because my classroom was not a politically-charged battlefield. I also maintained a position of political neutrality as an instructor, because I felt it was inappropriate for me to preach my own views from my role as an authority figure. I served as an impartial moderator and created a classroom climate that emphasized respect and civility, while also making arguments and defending them with evidence.
Nowadays, declaring neutrality does not necessarily protect teachers. If students even have the perception of bias or feel uncomfortable during a class discussion, and tell their parents about it, then suddenly I can find myself in trouble with the state.
All it takes is the perception of controversy to ignite a firestorm. A teacher in Brooksville, Florida found herself under investigation because she played a Disney movie in her classroom that included an LGBTQ+ character. A student told his mother about it and the controversy eventually found its way to the national news. The school board meeting to discuss the topic lasted several hours. The teacher was reprimanded and advised not to show film clips without explicit administrative approval, but was allowed to keep her job.
That small vignette demonstrates the chilling effect I previously discussed. If a single student or parent can spark a firestorm that threatens my entire career, what is the logical recourse for educators?
Avoid anything with even a hint of controversy. Create a classroom that is so bland and vanilla that no one’s feelings could ever be hurt.
The creation of such a classroom environment results in an education that is not only boring, but also bad.
This does not promote critical thought. This does not promote innovation. Good teaching in fields like social studies and literature will take students to potentially uncomfortable topics. The world is an uncomfortable place. If schools just train students to memorize useless trivia and regurgitate it on state-mandated exams, then graduates will not produce the innovation needed to drive the 21st century economy.
88% of teachers in a recent survey noted that education was becoming too politicized, with 82% stating that educators were becoming targets of political attacks.
How can districts attract and retain quality teachers in such a climate?
How can graduates learn the necessary skills to drive economic growth in a chilled classroom environment that does not teach them how to think critically? Or how to debate opposing viewpoints in a civil manner?
If this culture war continues, the result will be an exacerbated teacher shortage and negative educational outcomes for students.
If educational excellence is the goal, then it’s time for a peace conference to end the culture war. If teacher recruitment and retention is the goal, perhaps policy actors should let teachers teach.
- U.S. Department of Education-Certification requirements by state: https://www2.ed.gov/teachers/jobs/reqs/edpicks.jhtml
- Teaching positions available on Indeed’s job board: https://www.indeed.com/jobs?q=teaching&l=&vjk=8b5a43a8a1a08859