New study points the way to a better understanding of the possibly-overstated national teacher shortage

Responding to a shortage of classroom teachers begins with understanding what’s behind it and, possibly, being prepared to alter the diagnosis of the problem. That’s the lesson to be drawn from some new and important research. In the Seattle Times, Neal Morton reports,

The New York TimesThe Washington PostNational Public Radio and, yes, The Seattle Times have all contributed to a growing perception that there just aren’t enough teachers to do the job. And since 2011, mentions of the phrase “teacher shortage” in U.S. news coverage spiked more than 1,300 percent to nearly 4,000 times last year, according to a new report by Dan Goldhaber, director of the Center for Education Data and Research at the University of Washington.

…Goldhaber and co-author Thomas Dee, of Stanford University, however, say their research suggests the headlines obscure the real problem. They dispute the notion that there’s a nationwide teacher shortage. Instead, they say, their research suggests a more persistent and acute shortage of teachers in certain subjects and schools.

They find shortages in some STEM programs, special education and schools with a large proportion of families living in poverty.

Goldhaber isn’t exactly sure why some teaching positions remain so hard to fill. In Washington state, his previous research found a high turnover rate among special-education teachers, whereas math and science vacancies don’t attract enough well-trained candidates.

Morton links to their research (brief, full report).

In their Hamilton Project Policy Brief, the researchers write,

Addressing school- and subject-specific teacher shortages will likely require adjustments to teacher compensation. The authors note evidence suggesting a moderate level of teacher responsiveness to compensation, however, suggesting it would be necessary to offer substantial monetary incentives to induce teachers to take positions in hard-to-staff schools or in high-need subjects. In particular, motivating teachers to move from one school to another can be costly…

Understanding labor markets is important, they note, offering a caveat.

However, the authors also cite evidence that state-speci c licensing requirements, seniority rules, and the lack of portability for teachers’ de ned-bene t pensions render local teacher labor markets more disconnected from each other than they would otherwise be. The interstate mobility of teachers, even those residing near state borders, is very low, making it more difficult to address teacher shortages that are specific to particular geographic areas.

They offer specific recommendations to policymakers. We commend the report to your attention. As Morton reports,

The authors argue that school districts could use financial incentives to attract and keep more teachers in high-need subjects and hard-to-staff schools. But that’s not likely to happen in a state like Washington, where virtually all districts adhere to the same statewide teacher-salary schedule.

“It is not surprising in a place with a strong teachers union that you have relatively little differentiation” in pay, Goldhaber said. “It undermines the purpose of the union, which is to bargain on behalf of all members.”

Further, from the Times story,

The report also encourages states to expand or start so-called alternative routes to teacher licensure.

While many teachers get into the classroom through a college of education, fast-track licensing programs could be designed to place more candidates directly into high-need classrooms, the report said.

Given the role teach compensation plays in the state Supreme Court’s McCleary mandate, this research is timely and relevant. For those looking for a quick fix, this observation is important:

“Talking about this problem in a non-nuanced way is likely to create non-nuanced solutions that don’t get you very much in return,” Goldhaber said.