Research & Commentary: Teacher Shortages

Published July 30, 2012

North Dakota is reporting extreme teacher shortages as the state booms economically thanks in great part to oil extraction, but it’s not the only place where such shortages are occurring. The federal government’s list of teacher shortages finds them in every state through 2013.

Teachers who work in locales on the federal shortage list are eligible for many thousands of dollars in taxpayer-paid loan forgiveness. North Dakota has dramatically reduced barriers to teachers transferring into the state, but it and other states still face shortages despite these incentives.

Those who support bigger government say these conditions demand increasing teacher pay and creating intensive marketing campaigns to drive students into teaching. They compare teacher salaries to those of other professionals and, when it rates lower on average, say this means governments have to increase teacher compensation to make the profession more attractive.

People who support free enterprise note the teaching profession is not incorporating the kinds of efficiencies common in the private sector and is highly regulated compared to other professions. Over the past 60 years, in fact, the number of teachers has grown 11 times faster than the student population, and teacher benefits are far higher than those of comparable workers. Those facts indicate not a teacher shortage but a massively wasteful and stagnant labor market.

This constricted labor market means teachers have few opportunities to earn more money and better positions through hard work and merit. The government monopoly on education eliminates any appreciable competition that could attract better workers through higher pay and better work environments. Both students and teachers in any particular place have only one viable option when it comes to choosing a place to work or learn.

The following documents offer more information about teacher shortages.


America Has Too Many Teachers
The number of public school employees has doubled in 40 years while student enrollment has increased by only 8.5 percent—and academic results have stagnated, writes Andrew Coulson in the Wall Street Journal. This means teacher employment has grown 11 times faster than enrollment. If the nation returned to the student-to-staff ratio of 1970, American taxpayers would save about $210 billion annually. These facts imply U.S. public schools are inefficiently warehousing many people who would be working more productively in the private sector.

Financially Sustainable Career Paths for Teachers
Few career options exist inside teaching, leading to lower pay and reduced attraction for potential teachers in general and excellent applicants in particular, write Brian and Emily Hassel. They list several different kinds of career options schools can offer teachers to send the message that they value excellent teaching and employees.

Recognizing the Value of Good Teachers
The best 15 percent of teachers move children with average test scores beyond average, and the worst 15 percent of teachers pull children with average test scores down from that average, notes Eric Hanushek in Education Week. Differences in children’s test scores lead to real, measurable differences in later earnings and thus economic output. This means teachers matter a lot, but current school structures do not address the significant quality differences among teachers. Just replacing the worst 5 to 10 percent of teachers with average teachers would move the United States from the middle to the top of international rankings and contribute an additional $100 trillion to our future economy.

Profound Implications for State Policy
The past decade of research on education has developed three conclusions about teaching: Teachers are the most important in-school factor in determining student achievement; there is wide variation in teacher effectiveness; and those differences really matter for kids, write New Jersey Education Commissioner Chris Cerf and Peter Shulman for Education Next. This means policymakers must rethink structures to allow schools to attract and retain teachers.

Seizing Opportunity at the Top: How the U.S. Can Reach Every Student With an Excellent Teacher
Children don’t just need a teacher—they need excellent teachers repeatedly, or achievement gaps will never close and other countries will continue to surpass U.S. students, write Brian and Emily Hassel in a report for Public Impact. After graduation, children who had excellent teachers earn three times what those who had poor teachers do. Policymakers should first work to let administrators identify top teachers, then remove policy barriers that keep these excellent teachers from reaching more students for better pay. The report suggests many ways of finding and broadening the reach of the best teachers so children have better education outcomes.

Is There a “Qualified Teacher” Shortage?
There is little evidence that pay increases for all teachers are necessary to staff public schools with qualified teachers, concludes Michael Podgursky in a study published by Education Next. On the contrary, teacher pay schedules actually drive the most-needed teachers out of the profession, by prohibiting schools from paying more for particular jobs to compete with workers’ other options. State teacher licensing laws are absurdly complex and make no contribution to teacher quality, he writes.

Let a Thousand Teachers Bloom
How U.S. schools recruit, evaluate, retain, and compensate our more than 3 million public school teachers is almost entirely unrelated to teacher quality, explains Marcus Winters in the Weekly Standard. Modern research provides substantial evidence that the current system is not just bad at finding good teachers, but is actually incapable of doing so. Since all our efforts to identify effective teachers before they enter the classroom fail to do so, schools need to meaningfully measure each teacher’s independent contribution to students’ learning once on the job.


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If you have any questions about this issue or The Heartland Institute, contact Heartland education policy research fellow Joy Pullmann, at 312/377-4000 or [email protected].