Why educators want you to think there’s a teacher shortage (Kokomo Tribune)

Kokomo Tribune graphic

Educators point to state of profession as reason for shortage, though conflicting information paints varying pictures of supply, demand for teachers

 Indiana’s teacher shortage has received plenty of attention from media and policymakers recently, and educators can point to a whole laundry list of reasons for the shortfall.

Over-testing students, unfair accountability measures for teachers, too much political influence in education without enough teacher input and a growing attitude of disrespect toward the profession all factor into what local educators perceive as a teacher shortage.

But there’s conflicting information on whether Indiana is in fact seeing a teacher shortage.

In the past 15 years, the number of teachers in Indiana has actually increased by 2.6 percent, compared to student enrollment that grew by 1.1 percent, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Indiana Department of Education. That includes K-12 public and private school teachers and students.

The idea of a teacher shortage spawned mainly from the declining number of initial teacher licenses issued in Indiana in the past five years – which dropped by 35.6 percent from the 2010-11 school year to the 2014-15 school year, according to data from the IDOE. The total number of teachers across the state dropped by almost 16 percent from 2009-10 to 2013-14.

Educators and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz have interpreted that drop-off as reason to be alarmed about the future of the profession. Ritz continues to meet with a 49-person commission of educators, lawmakers and other stakeholders she assembled to delve into issues related to teacher retention and recruitment. A couple of weeks ago, a legislative study committee offered its recommendations for addressing the teacher shortage, which lawmakers can choose to act on when the next session convenes in January.

The idea of an impending teacher shortage has been used as a springboard to discuss what can be done to attract more people to profession – like raising pay or taking a step back from the increasing emphasis placed on student test data to measure their proficiency, as well as teachers’ performance.

“I think what’s really unfortunate over the last several years comes back to the perception of the teaching profession,” said Mike Sargent, assistant superintendent for Kokomo School Corp. “These are degreed, licensed, highly educated and highly trained people across the state who work really hard with children, and it’s really disconcerting to read and hear about the shift away from respecting those people who really give their life to a profession and work extremely hard for the betterment of our future.”

That negative perception, combined with the stress teachers are under related to standardized assessments, evaluations and state-mandated compensation models, all contribute to the teacher shortage, Sargent said.

If the downward trend in teacher licenses issued continues and fewer people pursue teaching, that would be problematic for schools. But it may be too soon to call it a teacher shortage.

Economists – including Michael Hicks, director of Ball State University’s Center for Business and Economic Research – have a different interpretation of data on Indiana’s teaching force. They see the recent decline in new teachers entering the field as a natural swing in the labor market, spurred on by the fact that just over half of people nationwide with education degrees actually end up in the classroom. Local school administrators say they used to get anywhere from 100 to 200 applications for an open elementary teaching position, though that number dropped drastically going into this school year.

“There’s just zero evidence there’s actually a teacher shortage.”

“There’s just zero evidence there’s actually a teacher shortage,” said Hicks, who has a PhD. in economics and released a study on Oct. 26 about Indiana’s demand and supply issues for K-12 teachers.

Defining a shortage

In economic terms, a shortage is when the demand for a position or product exceeds the supply. That’s simply not happening across the state with teachers, though smaller school districts especially may have had difficulty hiring for certain positions going into this school year.

As Hicks points out in his study, approximately 58.5 percent of all education graduates in the country were working in education as of 2012, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Another 24.7 percent of all education graduates are working in other fields that pay more than education, and 16.7 percent are working jobs that pay less than education.

Hicks thinks the declining enrollment in teacher colleges stems from those statistics.

“There’s some evidence that fewer people are enrolling in teaching colleges, but that could be explained because so few people with teaching degrees go into education,” he said. “Some of this [teacher shortage discussion] can be fear from teacher colleges.”

Hicks’ study also looked at trends in teacher turnover, student enrollment and teacher wages, debunking the theories that those factors are behind the alleged teacher shortage in Indiana.

“To some degree what’s puzzling to me … is there’s no fancy analysis anywhere [in his study on Indiana’s demand and supply for K-12 teachers],” he said. “It’s all readily accessible information.”

If there truly was a teacher shortage, the answer would be to raise salaries for teachers in order to attract more people to the profession, Hicks said, suggesting that may be why educators are perpetuating the idea of a teacher shortage.

But Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana Teachers Association, says there’s no direct benefit for teachers to perpetuate the idea of a shortage. She hopes the discussion about the state of the teaching profession motivates lawmakers to change some policies that she sees as disparaging the profession.

“In other businesses, a shortage may be a good thing because you can bargain for higher pay or better working conditions. But in teaching, you can’t do that.”

“It’s good to bring the conversation forward of what’s going on, what’s causing this,” Meredith said. “In other businesses, a shortage may be a good thing because you can bargain for higher pay or better working conditions. But in teaching, you can’t do that. That’s not how it works in teaching. Everything hinges on the political decisions.”

Meredith says the drop in applicants for open teaching positions across the state is a sign of a teacher shortage – something local administrators have echoed.

People may still be earning teaching degrees and getting licensed, but if they don’t end up in education, that’s part of the shortage, Meredith said.

“If there aren’t people applying for jobs, then yes there is [a shortage],” she added. “Even if folks have the degrees and aren’t using them, we need to figure out why.”  

Indiana teachers prepared by subject area

‘A skills mismatch’

The Indiana Department of Education defines a teacher shortage a little differently than economists would. States have the opportunity to submit Teacher Shortage Area proposals to the U.S. Department of Education each year, and if approved, teachers in those shortage areas may be eligible for some federal student loan forgiveness.

For the 2015-16 school year, the U.S. Department of Education designated teacher shortages in Indiana in career and technical education, business, various special education positions, early childhood education, English as a second language, math, technology education, world languages and all areas of science.

The number of shortage areas for the current school year is down from the 2010-11 school year, when 18 teacher shortage areas were recognized in Indiana. Three times in the past 25 years Indiana didn’t submit a proposal for any shortage areas.

The IDOE was not able to provide more specifics on how the state defines a teacher shortage area as of press deadline, but generally it’s based on the number of unfilled positions, positions filled by emergency certifications and positions filled by teachers certified in subjects other than what they are currently teaching.

Hicks thinks those teacher shortage areas are a result of a “skills mismatch,” where fewer teachers go into specialized fields, perhaps because they have more opportunities to earn higher salaries in other professions.

For example, local administrators have said it’s especially hard to hire for special education, foreign languages, science and math positions. Looking at those subject areas combined, only 16 percent of Indiana’s new teachers prepared in the 2012-13 school year were certified in those hard-to-hire areas, according to the most recent federal Title 2 data gathered under the Higher Education Act. By comparison, 28 percent of those new teachers were certified in elementary education, which is not of one of Indiana’s teacher shortage areas.

Hicks says a lack of qualified candidates in certain subject areas doesn’t equate to an overall teacher shortage.

“But I go back to why would that be the case [of shortages in certain areas]? I think the reason is teacher contracts don’t differentiate between job skills,” Hicks said, adding it could be beneficial to offer more compensation for teachers in those hard-to-hire fields. “I don’t assume people go into early childhood education because it’s easier. I don’t think it is easier. But we aren’t compensated on how easy or hard our job is. It’s based on supply and demand.”

This piece took first place for best news coverage with no deadline pressure in the 2016 Hoosier State Press Associations. Find other components of this package here.

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