By Ross Brenneman
With a new school year approaching, districts around the country are issuing urgent pleas for teachers to come work for them.
The words on many people's lips are "teacher shortage," and in some places, they have the ring of crisis to them.
"There are 467 current job openings, and we're all trying to pull from the same applicant pool," said Beverly Mortimer, superintendent of the Concordia, Kan., school district. "Out in the rural areas it becomes harder and harder to pull those applicants."
Regionally, stories of teacher shortages have been prevalent this summer, perhaps best exemplified by the Clark County, Nev., school district's launch of a nationwide campaign to entice both new and retired teachers with hiring bonuses of up to $5,000.
Districts in California, Arizona, and Indiana, among many other states, are also facing high-profile recruitment challenges.
Yet available data from the National Center for Education Statistics paint a complicated picture of the current supply of teachers: Yes, there are fewer teachers compared to previous years, but nationally, the student-teacher ratio has remained relatively consistent. The problem appears to be that available teachers aren't always located where they're needed most.
The most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education have in fact shown significant drops in teacher-education enrollment in many states, including in large states like Texas, New York, and California. Many experts chalk up such declines, as well as regional teacher shortages, to the Great Recession and ensuing cutbacks in public spending. Others have charged that poor teacher working conditions, such as low salaries and test-driven school cultures, are nudging existing and potential educators toward other professions, especially with the economy improving.
"Morale is low because not only salaries are low, but there's a feeling [among educators] that 'we have to hold all the teachers accountable because they don't know what they're doing,'" said Cecilia Johnson, an associate superintendent for the Arizona department of education. "They want to be valued more."
Drops in education-school enrollments don't necessarily equal shortages, though. According to data from its state education department, for instance, New York has a major surplus of certified teachers.
In shortage areas, demographic trends and school-enrollment changes tend to combine with other factors to spur greater demand for teachers.
But while the national teacher supply is often described as a "pipeline," that belies the fact that it's not always easy for teachers to move to a new state to teach.
"A lot of teachers want to teach where they go to school or where they live," said Karen Gallagher, the dean of the University of Southern California's Rossier School of Education. "They don't go to the very best places to be a teacher in the country; they want to work in their community."
Another problem: Teaching licenses are not always easily portable, due to differing state requirements and procedures.
Better coordination of data would likely help districts become more strategic in their recruiting efforts, observers say. While the federal government collects many kinds of information on new teachers, data tracking teachers' job statuses or transitions once they are in the profession remain elusive.
Public relations campaigns have helped some districts land new hires. The San Francisco school district, for instance, has managed to fill many of its gaps, although it is still looking for bilingual and high school math teachers, according to a district spokesperson. Those fields, along with special education, are common shortage areas across the country.
The Clark County district, meanwhile, has managed to recruit well over half of the more than 2,000 additional teachers it wants to have in place by fall.
Some districts have experimented with changing their licensure rules. In Kansas, the state board of education passed a measure in July allowing unlicensed teachers to work in six "innovative coalition" districts. That move followed earlier rules easing licensure requirements for teachers in STEM subject areas.
The changes infuriated many educators over what was perceived as a slight on the need for formal teacher training.
"In light of the political climate in Kansas, I think teachers feel like it's 'one more thing they're going to come after us with,' " Ms. Mortimer, the Concordia, Kan., superintendent, said.
But Ms. Mortimer, whose district is in the innovation coalition, defended the new rules, saying school systems like hers face difficult odds in recruiting teachers with degrees in highly employable subjects like science and math.
"With the cost of going to college today, to then be paid a very low salary and take a long time to pay off your college debt ... kids are smart," she said.
And so districts have to provide channels for the candidates who are available.
"You can't rule anybody out that might help make your kids successful," Ms. Mortimer said.
(c)2015 Education Week (Bethesda, Md.)