News of a teacher shortage across the nation has been pummeling us for years now, right up through a story yesterday in the Panama City News Herald about an “extreme” teacher shortage.
Fewer students in teacher prep programs. Thousands of unfilled teacher vacancies in state after state.
But we need to stop calling it a teacher shortage.
You can’t solve a problem starting with the wrong diagnosis. If I can’t buy a Porsche for $1.98, that doesn’t mean there’s an automobile shortage. If I can’t get a fine dining meal for a buck, that doesn’t mean there’s a food shortage. And if appropriately skilled humans don’t want to work for me under the conditions I’ve set, that doesn’t mean there’s a human shortage.
Calling the situation a “teacher shortage” suggests something like a crop failure or a hijacker grabbing truckloads before they can get to market. It suggests that there simply aren’t enough people out there who could do the job.
There is no reason to believe that is true. But pretending that it is true sets up justification for a variety of bad “solutions” to the shortage. “Since there aren’t enough teachers,” the reasoning goes, “then we might as well just let any warm body run a classroom.” So some states have adopted the idea of letting any person with any college degree take charge of a classroom. Computer-based learning systems are pitched in part as a way to “solve” the shortage of live humans to do the job. In some areas, charter schools have a particularly hard time filling positions with certified teachers, and so legislatures (like the one in New York), instead of saying, “Well, you’d better bend to free market forces and make a better offer,” offer to change the rules so that charters can hire folks who have no teaching credentials. Some folks have suggested that a single superteacher could handle an auditorium full of students or be piped into multiple distant classrooms via internet without any loss of the quality that made them super. All of these choices are less than optimal.
All of those “solutions” rest on the premise that there just aren’t enough qualified human teachers in the world, that the magic teacher tree hasn’t borne enough fruit. Given that premise, these all seem like ways to address the problem, even if it means settling for less than the high-quality teachers all students deserve.
But if we assume there are plenty of qualified people who could choose to enter a classroom, and stay there for a career, then we realize that we’re dealing with an entirely different problem. Students who could choose to become teachers are choosing not to. People who could choose to stay in the classroom are instead engaging in a slow-motion strike, an extended exodus, and our real problem is how to attract and retain those people.
Money is obviously an issue, as witnessed by a year’s worth of “teachers can’t live on a single teaching salary” stories. But over the past couple of decades teachers have also suffered a steady drumbeat of disrespect, the repeated refrain that US schools are failing and terrible, an accountability movement that is more about threats than support. The rise of reforms like Common Core and high stakes testing regimens have meant a loss of professional autonomy for teachers. The rise of alternative pathways and “any warm body will do” solutions send the message that teaching is such a simple job that any shmoe with minimal training can do it. The PDK poll lays out the results–teachers think about leaving the profession and do not want their children to enter it. And that’s before we even start to consider how badly underrepresented men and teachers of color are in the classroom.
The qualified people exist, but too many states and school districts want to pretend otherwise, in part because there is one other appealing aspect to viewing this as a teacher shortage. The shortage model allows state and district leaders to shrug and say, “Hey, they just aren’t out there. It’s not our fault.”
When the dealer won’t sell me my $1.98 Porsche, I can blame it on him and complain, “It’s not my fault he wouldn’t sell to me.” Or I can suck it up, take a look in the mirror and say, “If I want that car, I need to do better.”