Is There Really a Teacher Shortage? Some Perspective and a “Challenge”
Media outlets across America have been highlighting the “growing crisis” of teacher shortages, including 2,000 vacancies in Arizona. In Florida, they are allowing military veterans in Florida teach without certification. While teacher shortages make for good headlines, this narrative has dire consequences: Untargeted and broad policies only ignore the challenging conditions in schools that serve high concentrations of students of color and students from low-income backgrounds that are the direct result of high teacher turnover and less experienced teachers. This approach neither aligns with a deeper and more nuanced look at workforce data that show specific, chronic shortages in specific subjects, schools, and geographies across the country — nor does it address the continuous lack of teacher diversity.
Misidentifying a problem and developing a misaligned solution has precedence — not only in education, but in many other industries. It’s reminiscent of the New Coke fiasco of the 1980s, when the “Pepsi Challenge,” a marketing and advertising campaign featuring a blind taste showing Pepsi outperforming Coke by almost 2:1 — sent Coca-Cola sales into a temporary tailspin.
Faced with this one data point, Coke executives decided to sweeten the venerated brand’s original formula until their new drink outperformed Pepsi in a similar blind taste test. Armed with the “proof” that their new drink was superior, “New Coke” launched in the mid-1980s to much fanfare. However, New Coke was universally panned by consumers and critics alike, leading to Pepsi taking over Coca-Cola as the No. 1 soft drink in the country. After less than a year, New Coke was pulled from the shelves and went back to its original formula—and Coke has dominated the global market ever since.
The narrative of a national teacher shortage is education’s “Pepsi Challenge” — states are using a singular data point to make widespread changes to the teaching profession instead of using multiple data sources to accurately define the problem. State leaders must examine all of their data to identify where shortages are most acute and persistent and invest in targeted solutions to those problems. In addition to quantitative workforce data on specific shortages, state leaders should engage with their teachers to learn about their needs and their motivations for teaching in certain schools and remaining in the profession. This examination would uncover the chronic shortages and challenges facing schools in specific subject areas and in schools that serve higher concentrations of students of color and students from low-income backgrounds that have merely been exacerbated by the pandemic.
Data points that also include school-level workforce numbers will uncover chronic shortage areas and allow for more targeted, high-leverage solutions. If a district serving 100 schools has four schools that have huge shortages in specific subject areas, the solution of changing licensure requirements to allow more teachers into the profession does not address the actual problem. Solutions like providing teachers with incentives to teach in those schools and subject areas where shortages have persisted, providing retention bonuses for teachers in those schools and subjects, and investing in strategies like Grow Your Own programs that leverage the high numbers of paraprofessionals and recruit after-school staff in certain districts and schools, have greater impacts and are cheaper and more targeted than broad changes in the profession that allow problems to continue.
This moment can also serve as an opportunity to increase educator diversity in their schools and address chronic shortages of teachers of color, which affects every state in different ways. In addition to taking a more targeted look at school-level workforce data, including retention rates by race and ethnicity, and setting clear goals to close gaps, state and district leaders should be regularly engaging with teachers of color to learn more about their experiences in schools and how to address their specific needs. Surveys of teachers of color consistently find that their motivations for teaching and staying in the classroom are much different than their White peers. Surveys that do not disaggregate results by race could lead to investments in pay raises that would increase retention numbers broadly while not addressing leadership opportunities and improved school cultures, both of which are often more important to teachers of color than their White peers.
The time is now for policymakers and state leaders to address the chronic and persistent teacher shortages facing certain schools, subjects, and geographies across the country. Hopefully, state and district leaders can learn from New Coke and take a much more nuanced and well-informed approach to teacher shortages so they can ensure that students of color and students from low-income backgrounds have access to strong and experienced teachers from diverse backgrounds.