Terry H. Schwadron
Sept. 8, 2023
Between bad effects of nature and the bad behavior of our politicians, it feels as if a significant story is slipping through the cracks — shortages of qualified teachers for our public schools.
School has started amid scattered reports from around the country about the shortages of teachers — and school bus drivers — and the outreach for replacements almost regardless of whether they are qualified.
It is an issue that has worsened in recent years, particularly intensifying after covid shut schools across the country for extended periods. The effects of pandemic have unleashed anger and frustration among teachers as well as the more well-reported disaffections among parents.
Tuan Nguyen, a Kansas State University education professor, and two colleagues last year counted more than 36,500 vacancies in 37 states and D.C. for the 2021–2022 school year, and this year said shortages had grown 35 percent to more than 49,000.
Some teachers are leaving over pay and conditions, some over frustrations about political interference in the classroom, increasingly erratic government policies about what can and cannot be said legally now to students, some because of concerns about safety from community and possible attackers. Shortages have been cited as a factor in teachers leaving the profession, and “burn-out” is a frequent explanation.
Public school teachers are notoriously underpaid in comparison to other professions requiring an equal amount of training and academic work.
In response, school districts are reaching out to National Guardsmen or to those still in training or to people without teaching certification. Of course, we don’t have a clue as to any longer-term effects of doing so, but we can be sympathetic about the search for solutions.
It’s a National Trend
The shortages are not equally distributed across the country, though there are higher vacancies overall in California just because of population.
In Maine, Nevada, Louisiana, Kentucky, and Rhode Island, there are more than 30 teacher vacancies per 10,000 students. In Mississippi and West Virginia, there are more than 50 teacher vacancies per 10,000 students. I
Shortages are higher in poorer areas.
There is a larger context here, of course, that seem together to be putting public education under a bigger microscope — and possibly in danger as a continuing American mainstay altogether.
Laws to allow taxpayer money for vouchers to encourage choice of private and parochial school alternatives are advancing across states.
In New York, Chicago and Texas, school districts are scrambling to deal with the effects of a broken immigration system in which migrant minors are arriving in huge numbers while families await asylum decisions; there are effects on enrollment, transportation, even school health — all in a time of very rapid and unplanned change.
There are seasonal labor contract issues and strikes of school bus drivers and others.
And overall, there is a public reckoning underway, pushed both by a political Right that promotes parental controls over content in the classroom and books in school libraries, and from education officials who are worried about how to make up for achievement slide from schools closed during the pandemic.
In Florida, teachers talk openly about dissatisfaction trying to teach under laws passed by Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Republican state legislature barring or limiting what teachers can say about racial and gender identity and history. DeSantis has been turning to the state National Guard to provide classroom instructors.
A Pennsylvania school superintendent in a rural district told NBC News that advertised vacancies for an English instructor, a special education teacher, a speech therapist had drawn no applicants. He was preparing to hire people who have no teaching experience or training, which he rarely had to do a decade ago. New teachers earn about $46,000 a year. Applications for teaching licenses in Pennsylvania have fallen by 67% since 2010.
There is no national accounting for such local hiring, but anecdotes from around the country show that officials increasingly are reaching to fill-ins without academic training or practical experience, raising questions not only about academic mastery but of what the school experience is becoming. Substitute teachers are becoming long-term substitutes, and class sizes generally are increasing.
With public schools increasingly targeted as a political target for overspending and a perceived cultural foe, particularly in conservative areas, this is a problem that will grow, not shrink.
Teachers are finding themselves caught between trying to help students catch up from pandemic-era learning losses just as they are at the center of the culture wars. At times, it seems more important in some states to control “indoctrination” from reading controversial books than it is that students can read altogether.
State surveys show a growing trend of teacher resignations. Pennsylvania had 7.7% of all teachers leaving their jobs, according to research, and the number of emergency teaching certifications has increased. In Washington state, the teacher attrition rate was 8.91% last year, the highest in 37 years. In Maine, more than 2,000 teachers and other educators quit or retired last year, the most in the past seven years, according to the Maine Public Employee Retirement System.
At the same time, there has been a decrease in the number of college graduates going into teaching that predates the pandemic.
We should be watching as the combination of lack of attention, the state of teacher preparation, pay and public support, an interest in public spending and volatile politics is turning public education into an endangered species.