There is a very real crisis in American education, but this crisis has nothing to do with education policy. From 2009 to 2014, there was a significant decline in enrollments (35% fewer) into teacher preparation programs, according to one report from the Learning Policy Institute. This decrease in enrollments, combined with an increase in classes that were previously not offered due to funding cuts that have been lifted, has greatly affected the teacher shortage. But the single largest contributor, according to the report, is the high percentage of teachers who leave the profession. All of this has resulted in a major shortage of qualified teachers for US schools. And this teacher shortage is predicted to have major impacts on American classrooms and students. As noted in this Washington Post article:
“Our analysis estimates that U.S. classrooms were short approximately 60,000 teachers last year,” Leib Sutcher, the [sic. Learning Policy Institute] study’s co-author, told reporters. “Unless we can shift these trends, annual teacher shortages could increase to over 100,000 teachers by 2018 and remain close to that level thereafter.”
With 2018 less than one year away, these staggering numbers are quickly becoming a grim reality. And according to the same Washington Post article, these teacher shortages are even more significant in certain subjects, including math and science, special education, and bi-lingual or English as a Second Language (ESL) instruction. In addition, some parts of the country are experiencing even greater declines than others, and high-poverty and high-minority schools are seeing a greater impact with fewer certified teachers than low-poverty and low-minority schools from the same areas.
What does this mean for our children?
Teacher shortages can negatively impact everything from class size and teacher to student ratios, to fewer courses being offered and less qualified instructors to teach the courses that are available to our children. According to this survey data from the National Center for Education Statistics:
“The pupil/teacher ratio in public schools declined from 15.9 in 2003 to 15.3 in 2008. In the years after 2008, the pupil/teacher ratio rose, reaching 16.1 in 2013.”
The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) notes that principals faced with teacher shortages often must ask teachers from one discipline to teach a subject unfamiliar to them, and the result is this:
“…students are being taught by teachers who lack the knowledge and skills necessary for quality instruction. Ingersoll’s research shows that almost one-third of all high school math teachers have neither a major nor a minor in math or a related discipline. Almost one-fourth of high school English teachers have neither a major nor a minor in English or a related field. Almost half of all high school students enrolled in physical science courses are taught by teachers without at least a minor in any physical science. More than half of all high school history students are taught by teachers without either a major or a minor in history (Ingersoll, 1998). As a result, “for English, math, and history, several million students a year in each discipline are taught by teachers without a major or minor in the field” (Ingersoll, 1998, p. 774).”
Why are class size and teacher to student ratios important?
Class size and teacher to student ratios have often been cited as major factors in high performing classrooms, with students displaying higher achievement in smaller classes. Research data from the Center for Public Education suggests that although the performance indicators are inconclusive for older grades, younger grades (K-3) have shown higher student performance with smaller class sizes, stating:
“Some researchers have not found a connection between smaller classes and higher student achievement, but most of the research shows that when class size reduction programs are well-designed and implemented in the primary grades (K-3), student achievement rises as class size drops.”
So larger classes can negatively impact student performance and student achievement for our younger students, and a teacher shortage can have a negative impact on our youngest learners. And it doesn’t take a scientific study to understand how less qualified teachers can also have a negative impact on student performance and achievement. Without major intervention programs, the teacher shortage can have a significant impact on our children.
What is being done to address the teacher shortage?
The Learning Policy Institute study noted teacher attrition as the single highest contributor to the teacher shortage in America. As noted in the Washington Post article, a majority of teachers who do leave the teaching professional do so because of job dissatisfaction and burn out. So it would seem that measures taken to address and combat burn out issues for teachers could help alleviate the shortage.
“In times of shortage, policymakers often focus attention on how to get more teachers into the profession, but it’s equally important to focus on how to keep the teachers we do have,” Sutcher said. “Reducing attrition in half, from eight percent to four percent, would virtually eliminate overall shortages.”
Most plans for addressing the teacher shortage issue center around making the career more enticing, with higher pay, better compensation packages, and incentives such as child care options and student loan forgiveness. The idea is that creating a more desirable work environment, greater autonomy in the classroom, higher compensation and benefits, will entice teachers to stay in the profession longer, and attract new teachers to the profession as well.