Natacha Pisarenko / AP

Over the summer, major news outlets reported that the nation is facing dire teacher shortages. Pundits speculated that middling salaries and low prestige of teachers, among other factors, were pushing smart young people to other professions. The number of education majors dropped from 179,000 in 2011-12 to 164,000 the following year.

While the country’s teaching force is certainly dealing with a staffing problem, a closer look at the numbers shows that shortages are centered in particular subject areas and geographic areas. In fact, there may be too many certified teachers in some fields, such as early-childhood education.

Since 2001, the number of public-school teachers in the United States has consistently hovered at 3 million or so; according to Education Week, the tally is 3.12 million this year. The number has kept pace with the growth in K-12 enrollment, so the teacher-student ratio has remained constant, even slightly decreasing, over the last few decades. And while widely publicized layoffs caused some dips in the number of teachers starting in 2009, those numbers have since returned to pre-recession levels. By 2020, the country is projected to have 3.3 million public-school teachers, Education Week reports.

The U.S. Department of Education publishes an annual state-by-state report on teacher shortages dating back to 1990. The most recent report, a 173-page document, lists each state’s shortage areas from year to year, but because states report their shortages differently, the information is inconsistent, and does not include quantitative data. The report fails to analyze the statistics and show how the numbers have evolved over time. Some analysts, such as the education blogger Peter Greene, have compiled their own state-by-state summaries of the problem by aggregating media reports. But many of those analyses, too, fail to provide an empirical and comprehensive assessment of the country’s very nuanced teacher-shortage crisis.  

Still, it’s clear that certain states are scrambling to fill their schools with qualified teachers, including California, Arizona, Oklahoma, Indiana, and Kansas each of which has its own set of reasons for its shortage. California, for its part, laid off 80,000 teachers during the recession, which was followed by a depression in the number of college students pursuing careers in education. Indiana, among states with similar demographics, has struggled to fill positions in both isolated,rural communities and urban areas, two particularly high-needs settings. In Kansas, teachers are “fleeing across the border” to other states, largely because budget cuts have resulted widespread dissatisfaction with the work conditions.

Yet some states, such as New York, have the opposite problem: too many teachers. In New York, just 7 percent of the teachers who were newly certified for the 2013-14 school year were employed as of October of that year, according to state data. Teacher-preparation programs in the Empire State are producing too many elementary-school teachers, as well as educators trained in popular subjects, such as English and history. The education-focused news outlet Chalkbeat reports that only 1 in 3 graduates from teacher-prep programs are able to find a position in the state.

Why is there so much variation across states, districts, and even positions? As the Indiana example demonstrates, geography is a major factor, with certain cities and rural areas alike scrambling to fill openings. Teachers are needed in Newark, Baltimore, and Philadelphia, for example, where concerns about safety and other challenges in urban schools may deter prospective teachers, according to a growing body of research. Meanwhile, rural districts have struggled to convince young people to relocate to localities where housing and recreational options are limited. In 2013, nearly a third of Mississippi’s districts reported critical shortages, particularly in rural areas. It’s not clear how teacher-staffing issues in these parts have evolved over time. Some experts also suggest that bureaucratic rules are hampering efforts to adequately distribute teachers across the country. Each state has its own certification rules, making it difficult for a teacher to relocate and find work elsewhere.

Another reason for the staffing inconsistencies is that prospective educators tend toward certain subject areas and away from others. On top of early-childhood education, the DOE report suggests that there are few shortages in high-school English, for example. And Education Week reported in 2013 that colleges were overproducing elementary-school teachers.

On the other hand,teachers specializing in special education and English as a second language are in high demand; this has been the case for years, though shifting demographics in student populations suggests that the demand is rising. Science positions also tend to be understaffed, particularly in physics and chemistry, as are those in math. Despite the ever-growing emphasis on STEM education, science and math teachers have long been in short supply because it’s hard for public schools, many of which are drastically underfunded, to compete with private-sector salaries in their recruitment of young adults with those skills. A number of states also report a shortage of foreign-language teachers.

So, in theory, while prospective high-school English teachers might struggle to find a job in New York’s middle-class suburbs, special-ed teachers in, say, Indiana or California are likely to find plenty of offers.

The takeaway? Solutions to the teacher-shortage problem must take into account its complexities; across-the-board initiatives to increase the number of education majors are unlikely to address each state’s specific set of issues. Teacher-training programs could do a better job of providing students with concrete information about the employment realities—which subject areas need teachers and which ones don’t. Given that 14 percent of 20-somethings are unemployed, that information is certainly valuable. And greater certification portability would reduce barriers to relocation, while streamlined recertification options could help teachers who struggled to find work or were laid off during the recession return to the profession.

Some districts and states have experimented with added incentives for teachers. In Philadelphia and in rural areas in South Carolina, for example, there have been proposals to create low cost housing or “teacher villages” to provide incentives for teachers to work in those communities. States could offer bonuses and other perks to teachers in the high-need subjects and locations. At least one study found that these targeted bonuses are successful, though others haven’t been as optimistic about the efficacy of such perks—at least with regard to retaining effective educators. As the Kentucky teacher Paul Barnwell has argued, schools—particularly those serving high-poverty student populations—should do more to support their teachers with resources and training, particularly since many of the teachers placed in struggling schools have the least experience.

Or, if filling positions is all but impossible, there’s always the Internet. Some states are trying out virtual-education programs so that children in geographically remote regions can learn even without a teacher. But a classroom teacher is, of course, almost always preferable.

When I was in my 20s, I took a year-long break from my graduate studies. My aunt, who was a teacher at a school for children with special needs in the South Bronx, encouraged me to get an emergency-certification license and take up a teaching position there. The first month was a bit of shock. On the way to the school the first day of school, I drove around abandoned appliances and roosters in the middle of the street, later crying after encountering children with multiple disabilities, including muscular dystrophy, Down’s syndrome, and cerebral palsy. One student regularly had grand mal seizures during class.

But after a few weeks, I stopped noticing the children’s differences and the harshness of the environment. I taught the kids how to play Blackjack. We cooked. We did lots of coloring and engaged in other art projects, and I started to see my coworkers as family. The most traumatic event didn’t involve the kids or the school; instead, it was when I ran out of gas on the Cross Bronx Expressway during rush hour. At the end of the year, I returned to graduate school. But I could have easily stayed.

Every teaching experience is different. As Barnwell—who resigned from his first teaching position at one of Kentucky’s most “troubled” and “dysfunctional” middle schools—would probably attest, I was lucky to have had the year I did. But imagine if every student teacher, particularly those who’ve already set their sights on, say, teaching English in suburban New York, spent a semester working in underserved places and subject areas. Perhaps a handful of them would realize how much they love it. Perhaps we could redistribute our teachers to where they are needed the most.

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