Ah, back-to-school season in America: That means it's time for the annoyingly aggressive marketing of clothes, and for the annual warnings of a national teacher shortage.
A big factor: Far fewer college students are enrolling in teacher training programs, as we reported this spring, exacerbating a long-standing shortage of instructors in special education, science and English as a second language. In California, enrollment in teaching programs is down more than 50 percent over the past five years. Enrollment is down sharply in Texas, North Carolina, New York and elsewhere.
Add to those enrollment numbers the stagnant pay, attrition, retirements, an improving economy and politicized fights over tenure, and you've got the makings of a genuine problem in some regions.
"All of those things together are creating a serious challenge for us," Troy Flint, spokesman for the Oakland Unified School District in California, tells NPR Ed. "The teacher shortage we're facing in Oakland is significantly more dire than in previous years. We just don't have as many teachers in the pipeline."
With the new school year set to begin Aug. 24, Oakland has some 50 classroom vacancies. "The biggest challenge this year has come from the nationwide teacher shortage impacting all education employers, especially California public schools," Antwan Wilson, the district's superintendent, wrote this week in an email to staff and parents.
California has more than 21,000 teaching positions to fill. Districts laid off or eliminated some 80,000 teaching jobs between 2008 and 2012 during the recession. And as the economy rebounds, more young people have more options.
The shortage areas tend to be worse in districts with budget woes, a concentration of high-poverty areas and systems that are experiencing strong population growth.
Take Nevada, for example. In some districts, such as Clark County, which is home to Las Vegas, population growth has meant the district can't build enough schools to meet demand or find enough teachers, especially when you can potentially make more money with tips as a card dealer in a casino.
Pay is clearly an issue, especially in cities with high housing and living costs like those in the Bay Area, one of the nation's costliest regions. The annual starting teacher in Oakland makes a little more than $42,000. The average monthly apartment rent in the area is $2,802, according to Forbes.
But the shortage issue is an old problem. The largest number of teacher vacancies — as has been the case for years — are in special education, bilingual education and science.
Walsh argues that there isn't so much a shortage as a chronic, fundamental problem in how we train and place teachers. "We overproduce teacher candidates by a substantial margin. The U.S. has more teacher preparation programs than any other country in the world," she says.
"It's time for school districts to be much more insistent on what the qualifications are of teachers who enter and try to get a new job with them," Walsh adds. "School districts have to assert the fact that they are the client. And it's up to higher ed meet the needs of the client."
Walsh worries that talk of the shortage will prompt school boards to lower standards and qualifications to teach, which, she says, "is exactly what we don't need or want."
So, as children head back to school, what are districts with shortages doing to adapt? In many cases they'll turn more and more to substitute teachers — if they have enough in their area. Or they'll tap front-office employees with credentials.
"We don't want to rely on administrators with credentials to fill the gap, but that may be the case," Oakland's Troy Flint says. "We'll do that if that's what it takes to make sure there is a credentialed teacher in the classroom," when school begins next week.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
OK, if you're a kid, you probably don't want to hear this. Parents, don't hide your celebration. Back to school time, it is here, now or really soon, depending on where you are. But many school districts are facing a problem - a shortage of teachers. And let's dig in to why that is. NPR's Eric Westervelt, with our Education team, is on the line. Hey, Eric.
ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Good morning, David.
GREENE: So explain to us what's happening here. Why is there a shortage?
WESTERVELT: Well, there's a real mix of reasons. I mean, it really depends on where you are. In California, for example, districts laid off tens of thousands of teachers during the recession. Some 80,000 teaching jobs were eliminated between 2008 and 2012. You combine that with retirements and attrition and an economy on the upswing and you've got districts really scrambling for teachers here. Today, there are more than 21,000 open slots in California. Elsewhere, other factors are at play. Take Nevada, a state that's seen strong population growth, in some districts such as Clark County - where Las Vegas is - they just can't build enough schools to meet demand or find enough teachers when you can potentially make more money with tips as a casino card dealer.
GREENE: So is there a chance that, I mean, students are going to be seeing bigger class sizes and really feel the effect of this?
WESTERVELT: There is that chance, and there's a bigger picture problem here, David. As we reported this spring, you know, there's been a big drop in enrollment in college teacher training programs across the country. In California, enrollment is down more than 50 percent over the past five years. Enrollment is down sharply in Texas, in New York, in North Carolina and other places. So with the economy in better shape, you know, young people who may have been thinking about a teaching career just may have more options today.
GREENE: More options. So, I mean, explain to me the more options. Are people feeling like there are better paying jobs or jobs they'll enjoy aside from education? Is there something less appealing about teaching or sort of a combination of both?
WESTERVELT: I think it's a little bit of both. There's a sense that teaching isn't the stable, respect, fulfilling job it once was. Public school teachers I talked to say, look, we're tired of getting criticized from all sides, from parents, politicians and the media. And there are these often bitter political fights, David, right now over Common Core State Standards, over high-stakes testing, over teacher accountability. And this issue of regional shortage of teachers gets caught up in politics, too. On one side critics are saying, look, entrenched unions are, you know, crippling innovation and driving people from the profession. And teachers are firing back saying, you know, these corporate reformers, as they call them, are undermining public education by pushing charter schools vouchers and trying to roll back teacher tenure.
GREENE: Well, Eric Westervelt, let me ask you this. I mean, there's always been this talk of some areas like special education and other specialty fields that, you know, school systems have had a lot of trouble doing recruiting. I mean, are there lessons there and maybe sort of some lessons about what schools might be doing right now to sort of attack this?
WESTERVELT: Yeah, I think the issue gets to a larger structural problem in the U.S. in how we train teachers. I mean, this is not a new problem. Many districts have long had trouble, you know, finding enough teachers for special education, for biology and other slots. So some argue there's really not a shortage so much as this problem in how we place and prepare teachers. And those critics say for too long the U.S. has been overproducing too many teachers for - example - elementary schools where there's less need and not creating the right mix. I spoke with Kate Walsh. She's president of the National Council on Teacher Quality. You know, she said in her view, there's a big disconnect that has to be addressed between these college training programs and school districts.
KATE WALSH: Districts have been screaming for years to send them more special ed and English language learner teachers. And it's time for school districts to be much more insistent on what the qualifications are of teachers who enter and try to get a new job with them. School districts have to assert the fact that they are the client. And it is up to higher ed to meet the needs of the client.
WESTERVELT: And, David, Walsh worries that, you know, talk of teacher shortage will prompt school boards to simply lower standards and qualifications for prospective teachers, which, in her view, would be disastrous.
GREENE: I mean, Eric, this sounds like sort of a challenge that we've seen in the larger U.S. economy right now. There's a lot of talk of needing to sort of match training better with the exact jobs that are out there, and companies are trying to get more involved in sort of managing what training exists. I mean, are we starting to see that with school districts? Are they responding in some ways?
WESTERVELT: I don't think they're responding fast enough. There is still this national disconnect that people have been talking about for a long time, and teacher training colleges are scrambling to try to adapt. And in the meantime, you know, local schools facing shortages are going to have to get creative, rely on temps and substitute teachers.
GREENE: And just to be clear, I mean, you mentioned California and Nevada but this is a nationwide problem. I mean, there are very few regions that are sort of not experiencing this.
WESTERVELT: That's right. We're seeing teaching shortages in cities from San Francisco to Louisville.
GREENE: All right, that's NPR's Eric Westervelt with our Ed team talking to us about a teacher shortage as this new school year begins. Eric, thanks a lot.
WESTERVELT: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.