September 15, 2016; Washington Post

Just as students in many parts of the country were returning to classrooms last week, the Learning Policy Institute released a national study it calls the most comprehensive look to date at the causes and effects of the nation’s teacher shortage.

In addition to the alarming information that the nation’s teacher supply is at its lowest level in ten years, the study also includes a comprehensive list of policy recommendations for strengthening teacher recruitment and retention and enhancing equity in public schools nationwide.

The study points out that national demand for teachers began to rise following the Great Recession and is still on the rise “as a function of changes in student enrollment, shifts in pupil-teacher ratios, and most significantly, high levels of teacher attrition.” Using data-based modeling, authors Anne Podolsky, Tara Kini, and Joseph Bishop and LPI president and CEO Linda Darling-Hammond show that by the 2017–18 academic year, annual demand for newly hired teachers will likely jump to 300,000 from the current level of 260,000.

Complicating the situation is the fact that the nation’s student population is on the rise. The authors cite the National Center for Education Statistics’ finding that “after relatively flat enrollment growth for the past decade…the school-going population will increase by roughly three million students in the next decade.”

According to the authors, national recruitment programs have made some progress but must be combined with teacher retention programs in order to be effective. Two hundred thousand teachers leave the profession each year, with most leaving for reasons other than retirement. Five key factors typically determine whether a teacher stays or leaves from a classroom teaching job:

  • Salary and other compensation
  • Preparation and costs to entry
  • Hiring and personnel management
  • Induction and support for new teachers
  • Working conditions.

The study devotes considerable attention to the issue of minority teacher recruitment and retention in light of the common view that the teaching force should “look like America.” In contrast to this ideal, the study notes that “as the nation’s population and students have grown more racially and ethnically diverse, the teaching force has done the opposite and grown less diverse.” Highlighting the results of recent recruitment efforts, the authors point out that “while minorities have entered teaching at higher rates than non-minorities over the past two-and-a-half decades, minority teachers also have left schools at higher rates.”

A key underlying cause here is that minority teachers are “two to three times more likely than non-minority teachers” to work in high-poverty and hard-to-staff schools. Particularly in recent years, minority teachers have also been more likely to migrate to different schools or to leave the profession entirely—a finding that “was especially true for male teachers.”

The authors include 15 policy recommendations for consideration by local, state and federal policymakers. The suggestions range from increasing overall compensation and expanding pathways into the profession, to using the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to provide low-income schools and districts with added resources to help retain high-quality teachers. A key point included here but sometimes overlooked in policy reports is “to survey teachers to assess the quality of the teaching and learning environment and to guide improvements.”

The release of this study generated attention last week both at a forum in Washington and on Twitter with the hashtag #solvingteachershortages. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, tweeted, “I agree with almost every single word in the @LPI_Learning reports and I will fight with you.” Also weighing in and citing Senator Lamar Alexander, Educators Rising added, “Reward teachers, give them autonomy, and pay them more for being outstanding. (YES!)”—Anne Eigeman