A teacher working with a student at a computer in a disadvantaged school district
Leadership Insights

How to Address the Teacher Shortage in Disadvantaged School Districts

By The Room 241 Team November 10, 2018

Many states are coping with teacher shortages, particularly in low-income districts with students of color. The coping mechanism has largely involved hiring under-qualified teachers to fill vacancies, leaving our neediest students receiving lower quality teaching. Meanwhile, teacher education programs have seen a large decline in enrollment, which translates to less certified and qualified teachers for our nation’s schools.

How big is the problem?

A recent study was conducted by the Learning Policy Institute (LPI). Here’s what the LPI found:

  • In 2009, 691,000 students were enrolled in teacher preparation programs but by 2014, only 451,000 were enrolled — an enrollment drop of 35% in just five years.
  • “In the 2015–2016 school year, 48 states and the District of Columbia reported shortages in special education; 42 states plus DC did so in mathematics; 40 states and DC reported teacher shortages in science.”
  • In the 2013–2014 school year, across the nation, “high-minority schools had four times as many uncertified teachers as low-minority schools.” High-poverty and low-poverty schools also exhibited these inequities.
  • When there are not enough teachers to go around, the schools with the fewest resources and the least desirable working conditions are the ones left with vacancies.”

Teacher attrition

A 2017 LPI report notes that “90% of open teaching positions are created by teachers who leave the profession. Some are retiring, but about two-thirds of teachers leave for other reasons, mostly due to dissatisfactions with teaching.” Those who leave the profession within a few years of starting out create a cycle of discontinuity, disrupt student learning, and cost schools a lot of money.

A continual need to train and orient new educators and the hiring of new and often under-qualified staff harms student learning because schools are bringing in untrained, provisionally licensed teaching staff with a continual high turnover rate. “The report estimates that each teacher who leaves, on average, can cost as much as $20,000 in an urban district,” according to the LPI. As more teachers leave, costs mount and students suffer.

Why teachers leave

Factors that contribute to teacher attrition include:

The public perception of the teaching profession often matches the reality — that teachers have to do too much for far too little and the constantly shifting demands can make teaching untenable for some.

The shortage has led some schools to get creative and turn to virtual teachers who appear in classrooms via video. “It’s still my preference to have a live body in the classroom if we can, but we’ve experienced teacher shortages in some of the most critical areas,” said Marc Smith, superintendent of Duncanville Independent School District, when speaking with the Wall Street Journal. In the Duncanville district, over 60 classes are led by 10 remote teachers.

Addressing the shortage

While the quick-fix solution of interim licensing may get teachers into otherwise empty classrooms, it does little to address the long-problem or to provide high-quality learning for students. “If you look at South Korea, Singapore, Finland, teaching has been given status, teachers are treated well, paid well, and so much professional development has gone behind them,” said CEO of the Varkey FoundationVikas Pota when speaking to CNN. In countries like Finland, teachers are revered and trusted, and learning is not centered around testing. While the socio-cultural landscape of the United States is vastly different than Finland, the idea of paying highly qualified teachers well and treating them with more respect could impact teacher retention.

Teachers should also be given opportunities to advance their practice. Their expertise should be recognized and utilized. School leaders should involve educators in professional development opportunities to ensure that their needs are being met. Sharing information about free leadership and self-care webinars, online graduate programs, and ways to maximize staff talent can help create a positive school culture that lifts teachers up and supports them in different ways.

According to the most recent NEA Ranking and Estimates, “the national average teacher salary is $59,660. However, teachers’ economic position has worsened over time. Inflation has eroded most of the teachers’ salary increases: Over the past decade, the average classroom teacher salary has increased 15.2% but after adjusting for inflation, the average salary has actually decreased by $1,823 or 3.0%.” The LPI suggests increasing “teacher salaries in schools and communities where salaries are not competitive or able to support a middle-class lifestyle” and “offering housing incentives, such as money for rent, relocation, and down payment assistance. For those with student debt, LPI suggests “service scholarships and loan forgiveness programs to attract prospective teachers to the fields and locations with the greatest shortages.”

Linda Darling-Hammond, President of the LPI, told NPR that “If you look at high-performing countries like Finland or Singapore, or go across the border to Ontario, Canada, the attrition rate is usually three percent or four percent of teachers. If we could reduce our attrition in half to four percent — we call it the four percent solution — we would actually have no teacher shortages right now. We would have plenty of supply and be able to be much more selective about who we bring into teaching. So it is a big part of the problem and the solution.”

New teacher mentoring programs, like the one in New York City’s public schools, go a long way to building capacity and keeping teachers in the classroom. “Preparation and mentoring matter a lot. Teachers who are well-prepared leave at more than two times lower rates than teachers who are not fully prepared,” says Darling-Hammond. “One of the things we often do in shortages is to bring in people who haven’t prepared to teach. Then we exacerbate the problem because they leave at two to three times the rate. The same thing is true about mentoring. If we could prepare teachers well, mentor them when they come in, and give them decent working conditions, we would be very close to the four percent solution.”

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