Teacher Shortages Will Linger When the Pandemic Wanes

Teacher Shortages Will Linger When the Pandemic Wanes

Covid-19 keeps battering schools, with staff shortages aggravated by the omicron variant the latest obstacle to returning to pre-pandemic normal. And while the virus will wane, the shortages will continue to threaten school quality and stability unless districts take action to shore up their teacher ranks.

Teacher shortages are chronic in some districts, and getting worse. More than half the principals surveyed by the EdWeek Research Center who said they closed schools during the latest Covid wave did so because they didn’t have enough staff. The number of education job openings overall surged by nearly 75% this fall compared to the same period last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The problem took root long before Covid. Enrollment in teacher-preparation programs has declined sharply. In New York, which enrolls 10% of the nation’s teachers, participation in state teaching programs has decreased by more than half since 2009.

Inadequate teacher pay is one cause for concern. In 2018, teachers earned 13% less than they had 20 years earlier in inflation-adjusted terms. In 30 states, teacher wages are so low that a 10-year veteran supporting a family of four would qualify for government assistance.

Beyond low pay, teachers are also bedeviled by the long-standing pressures of ever-changing testing and accountability regimes, lack of administrative support and poor working conditions — problems that cry out for developing school cultures that foster teacher engagement, trust and training.

High turnover is expensive. It costs $20,000 on average to fill each teacher vacancy, and student performance suffers. Turnover among Black teachers and in low-income schools is particularly high and harmful to students.

The most important step is to address plummeting morale with roots in a decades-long assault on public education. Federal policies, including former President George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” program to former President Barack Obama’s “Race to the Top,” imposed testing and curriculum mandates that fostered micromanagement of reading lists and lesson plans and rarely improved educational outcomes.

The mandates dovetailed with a privatization movement that demonized teachers — a 2008 Time magazine cover heralding a broom-wielding Washington, D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee sweeping away bad teachers marked one memorable low point. Then, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans fired most of its teachers, replacing a mostly Black teaching force with inexperienced and mostly White ones. Education reformers supported the organization that recruited a lot of the young teachers, Teach for America, but few of its recruits lasted more than a year or two.

Retaining and attracting good teachers will require a rethinking of what it means to treat them as professionals. High levels of teacher engagement and retention are key to high student outcomes, and almost always involve giving teachers greater autonomy in exchange for accountability, and providing the training and support teachers need to succeed.

At one end of the spectrum are the progressive public schools affiliated with the New York Performance Standards Consortium, which decades ago were allowed to replace most standardized tests with projects focused on writing, problem-solving and research — a system that relies on in-depth teacher training and collaboration. Consortium teachers coach junior faculty and evaluate projects at other consortium schools to ensure that standards stay high. Consortium schools have outpaced schools with similar demographics on both graduation and college matriculation rates, and turnover is a fraction of the rate at comparable public schools.

The central Texas district of Leander, near Austin, thrived for decades by building a culture based on the management ideas of W. Edwards Deming, who advocated a combination of statistical analysis and teamwork for improving quality. Leander also embraced Deming’s dictum that a culture of trust is key to improvement, and won a waiver from a state requirement that teacher evaluations be linked to test scores. Instead, Leander banked on collaboration among teachers and support staff for improving everything from classroom pedagogy to school designs, which were lauded for their high quality and low cost — a strategy that also relied heavily on training. The strategy paid off in student achievement and low teacher turnover; amid an acute teacher shortage, Leander’s turnover rate in 2015 was just 2%, and it boasted six applicants for every job opening.

A few charter schools also have recognized that increasing teacher participation in school decision-making and unionization via flexible and abbreviated “thin contracts” is key to improving education quality and driving down high turnover.

Localities should follow the lead of districts that recently raised teacher pay by 10% or more, with funds coming from Federal sources — the latest $129 billion in pandemic aid for K-12 schools gives districts broad discretion for how to spend the money — or expanded state funding thanks to a state tax revenue rebound. Massachusetts,  Mississippi and some other states are experimenting with grants, reduced interest rates and even dedicated housing for teachers to help offset real estate costs.

In the final analysis, though, districts need to make the day-to-day work lives of teachers, who are less motivated by money than by workplace and lifestyle choices, more rewarding.

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andrea Gabor, a former editor at Business Week and U.S. News & World Report, is the Bloomberg chair of business journalism at Baruch College of the City University of New York and the author of "After the Education Wars: How Smart Schools Upend the Business of Reform."

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