‘The Teacher Shortage’ Is No Accident—It’s the Result of Corporate Education Reform Policies

Kevin Prosen August 25, 2015

The solutions to the shortage—insofar as it even exists—are easy, but they aren't what corporate reformers want to hear. (Province of British Columbia / Flickr)

Like much else in the nation­al edu­ca­tion debate, pan­ics about teacher short­ages seem to be a peren­ni­al event. In a wide­ly dis­cussed arti­cle for the New York Times ear­li­er this month, Motoko Rich called atten­tion to sharp drops in enroll­ment in teacher train­ing pro­grams in Cal­i­for­nia and doc­u­ment­ed that many dis­tricts are relax­ing licen­sure require­ments as a result, push­ing more and more peo­ple into the class­room with­out full cer­ti­fi­ca­tion or prop­er training.

It’s a sad, alarm­ing state of affairs, and it proves that for all our lip ser­vice about improv­ing the edu­ca­tion of America’s chil­dren, we’ve failed to make teach­ing the draw that it should be, the hon­or that it must be,” mused Times colum­nist Frank Bruni.

That Bruni would bemoan such a state of affairs is iron­ic, as he has used his col­umn over the years to repeat­ed­ly argue that teach­ing is too easy a pro­fes­sion to enter and too easy to keep, and ampli­fied the voice of reform­ers who want to want to make the pro­fes­sion more pre­car­i­ous. But the real­i­ty is that speak­ing of a short­age” at all is a kind of ide­o­log­i­cal dodge; the word calls to mind some acci­dent of nature or the mar­ket, when what is actu­al­ly hap­pen­ing is the log­i­cal (if not nec­es­sar­i­ly intend­ed) result of edu­ca­tion reform policies.

This is an old nar­ra­tive, the idea that we aren’t pro­duc­ing enough teach­ers,” says Richard Inger­soll, an edu­ca­tion­al soci­ol­o­gist at Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia who has writ­ten exten­sive­ly on the sub­ject of teacher short­ages. As soon as you dis­ag­gre­gate the data, you find out claims of short­age are always over­gen­er­al­ized and exag­ger­at­ed. It’s always been a minor­i­ty of schools, and the real fac­tor is turnover in hard to staff schools. It may be true enroll­ment went down in these pro­grams nation­al­ly, but there are so many for­mer teach­ers in the reserve pool.” In oth­er words, the prob­lem isn’t that too few peo­ple enter­ing the pro­fes­sion, but rather that too many are leav­ing it.

Such high turnover rates are dis­rup­tive to school cul­ture and tend to con­cen­trate the least expe­ri­enced teach­ers in the poor­est school dis­tricts. A 2014 paper by Inger­soll and his col­leagues shows 45 per­cent of pub­lic school teacher turnover took place in just one quar­ter of the pop­u­la­tion of pub­lic schools. The data show that high-pover­ty, high-minor­i­ty, urban and rur­al pub­lic schools have among the high­est rates of turnover.”

If you look at the short­age areas in terms of sub­ject or what dis­tricts are hav­ing trou­ble fill­ing jobs, it’s a short­age of peo­ple who are will­ing to teach for the salary and in the work­ing con­di­tions in cer­tain school dis­tricts,” says Lois Wein­er, an edu­ca­tion pro­fes­sor at New Jer­sey City Uni­ver­si­ty and author of The Future of Our Schools. It’s not a short­age in every dis­trict. Look at the whitest, wealth­i­est dis­tricts in every state and call up the per­son­nel depart­ment, ask if they have a short­age in spe­cial ed or bilin­gual ed. They don’t — in fact, they are turn­ing can­di­dates away.”

Inger­soll says it’s no secret what kind of poli­cies will keep teach­ers in the classroom.

The most impor­tant thing in retain­ing teach­ers, accord­ing to the data, is suf­fi­cient lee­way and auton­o­my in the class­room,” he says. If low-per­form­ing schools that are sanc­tioned actu­al­ly allow teach­ers more auton­o­my dis­cre­tion and lee­way, their turnover is no high­er than high-per­form­ing schools.”

A recent sur­vey by the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers and the Badass Teach­ers Asso­ci­a­tion cit­ed by Bruni sheds some light on the state of teacher auton­o­my and job sat­is­fac­tion. Only 15% of teach­ers in the sur­vey strong­ly agreed with the state­ment I am enthu­si­as­tic about my pro­fes­sion at this point in my career,” although 89% strong­ly agreed with such feel­ings at the start of their career. Sev­en­ty-three per­cent said they were often stressed,” cit­ing man­dat­ed cur­ricu­lum, large class sizes and stan­dard­ized test­ing” as their top every­day stres­sors in the class­room; 71% said adop­tion of new ini­tia­tives with­out prop­er train­ing or pro­fes­sion­al devel­op­ment were major sources of work­place stress. Among the 30% of teach­ers who claimed to have felt bul­lied in the last year, 58% of these iden­ti­fy an admin­is­tra­tor or super­vi­sor as the culprit.

Far from grant­i­ng more auton­o­my to teach­ers, we appear to be giv­ing them less.

And such work­ing con­di­tions are tak­ing a toll. Last year, a report from New York’s Unit­ed Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers doc­u­ment­ed a teacher exo­dus” from the city’s schools, with near­ly half of teach­ers leav­ing with­in the first six years of their career, either to high­er-pay­ing sub­ur­ban dis­tricts or to oth­er careers alto­geth­er. A new trend in the New York City, accord­ing to the UFT, is a sharp increase in res­ig­na­tions among mid-career teach­ers — those between six and 15 years of ser­vice. These teach­ers are resign­ing at three times the rate of 2008

One of cor­po­rate school reform’s many ironies is that its ide­o­log­i­cal jus­ti­fi­ca­tions often yield their oppo­site. In the name of rais­ing stan­dards” and hold­ing edu­ca­tors account­able, teach­ers lose their pro­fes­sion­al auton­o­my and face an ever-increas­ing stream of new man­dates. This leads to high­er turnover. In order to fill the gaps, licen­sure rules are relaxed and sup­ports” are pro­vid­ed for an increas­ing­ly ama­teur work­force — through pre­fab­ri­cat­ed cur­ricu­lum and assess­ments. And the cycle starts all over again. The demor­al­iza­tion of the Amer­i­can teacher is lead­ing to the deskilling of their pro­fes­sion, which leads to teacher res­ig­na­tions, which leads to more demor­al­iza­tion, ad infini­tum.

Kevin Pros­en is a teacher in New York City and chap­ter leader in the Unit­ed Fed­er­a­tion of Teachers.
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