Really? There’s a teacher shortage. “Now a warning?”

Now A Warning There was that memorable moment in “Death Becomes Her” (1992) —

“Glamorous musical star Madeline Ashton’s (Meryl Streep) incredulous response to Lisle Von Rhuman’s (Isabella Rosselini): “But first, a warning…” after Madeline has already drunk the potion: “NOW a warning?!”; the jaw-dropping, award-winning visual effects used to comic effect, including the “backwards walk” when Madeline’s head is rotated 180 (and later 360) degrees, and her shocked cry: “My ass! I can see my ass!” [Filmsite.org]

And now the chair of the Nevada State Board of Education can see a teacher shortage in Clark County.

“Never has Elaine Wynn, president of the Nevada State Board of Education, felt so alarmed in her job as she did after hearing details of the Clark County School District’s teacher shortage.

During a board meeting Thursday, the former casino company executive and longtime philanthropist told district officials that she would clean house at any private business with such a “horrific” human resources crisis.” [LVRJ]

Before I get out my hankie – there is nothing new about a shortage of qualified teachers.  The problem is that it’s getting worse.  [WaPo]  Not sure? Take a gander at pages 95-98 of the Department of Education’s list of shortage areas in Nevada. (pdf)  Further, it’s not like we haven’t figured out why this is happening:

“What’s going on? Pretty much the same thing as in Arizona, Kansas and other states where teachers are fleeing: a combination of under-resourced schools, the loss of job protections, unfair teacher evaluation methods, an increase in the amount of mandated standardized testing and the loss of professional autonomy.” [WaPo]

That pretty well sums it up. Interestingly enough, most of the proposed “solutions” to the shortage don’t address any of the problems listed above.  First, there is the turnover rate factor – we can offer alternative licensure, up to almost allowing anyone who can fog a mirror and work for minimal wages to be employed in a classroom. However, if they don’t stay there then that’s not really a solution.

Secondly, even if the turnover rate is relatively low (as in Clark County) having people stay isn’t the solution if they can’t be recruited in the first place.   Let’s review: If salaries are lower in public education – especially in secondary specialties – and student loans are becoming more burdensome, then why would we expect a person to select education instead of electrical engineering?  Or, an elementary education major instead of business management? [DB] [DB] [DB] Add under-resourced schools, evaluations based on standardized test scores, the loss of professional autonomy, and taking a huge chunk of the day to do little but Test Prep – and what did we expect?

Recruitment/Turnover and Trends

A comprehensive study by the CPRE (pdf) updated in 2014, listed seven trends “transforming” the teaching force. Abbreviated, they describe a force which is (1) larger, with a high percentage of the increase involved in special education; (2) grayer, as in aging but not to such an extent as to cause shortages; (3) greener, with more rookies in classrooms; (4) more female; (5) more diverse; (6) consistent in academic ability, and disturbingly (7) less stable, less likely to remain in the profession. Of first year teachers who left vacancies in their wake, 20.8% resulted from school staffing action; 35.4% for personal or family reasons; 38.9% to pursue another job; and, a hefty 45.3% because of dissatisfaction.  Among the factors related to dissatisfaction: school and working conditions, low salaries, lack of classroom resources, student misbehavior, accountability issues, lack of opportunities for development, lack of input into decision making, and factors related to school leadership.

Solutions That Don’t Match The Problems

School “reform” is a popular topic on the hustings, but all too often it appears that the solution doesn’t match the problems incurred by our school systems.

(1) Punishing Poverty and Paucity.  Consider for a moment a district or school which has a high percentage of “at risk” students, and the usual paucity of funding for school resources.  What’s the next step?  We read newspaper articles and listen to broadcasts telling us about the FAILURE of the West Moose Tail School District! Then, the next higher governmental entity swoops in to “take over” the school(s) in order to reorganize and apply various reforms.   The “failure,” of course, is to make “adequate yearly progress” whatever that might mean, and the meanings vary among the states.

The obvious question is: Progress toward what? And the usual answer is higher standardized test scores.  Granted test scores are easy to digest, but before swallowing them as a significant indicator of what is going on in a particular school the cautionary tale of Mission High School in San Francisco, CA is in order. [MJ]  The emphasis on test scores creates its own bias – we pay attention to what we can quantify and ignore most of the rest, including classroom work, homework, grading, classroom examinations, the opinions of students and parent, and the school’s relationship to the community.

The default technocratic response is to blame the staff, then offer such reforms as charterization, massive staff layoffs, administrative replacements, and  curriculum changes.  There are issues within these One Size Fits All solutions.  Not the least of the issues is, as the Mission High School example offers us, whether we’re using a relevant definition of “failure.”  In the backwash of all the attention paid to the formulaic news about school failure, based on reports of test results, there is little attention paid to the conclusion of the 2012 Brookings Study (pdf) which reported there is no correlation between testing standards and student achievement.

The disconnect is also related to political rhetoric, of the kind in which critics of public education speak of “tossing good money after bad.”  This talking point is exceptionally handy for shielding the speaker from actually having to explain (1) how we measure success, (2) how we allocate resources between and among schools, and (3) how we analyze the performance of students by any other metric than standardized test scores.   For public education critics, the purpose of test scores is to punish poverty and paucity, not to identify where additional resources might be allocated to their best advantage.

(2) It costs money to be a teacher.  How to recruit the next generation of teachers?  Perhaps it might be a bit easier IF student loans weren’t such a financial burden on young people fresh out of college.  It might have been helpful if Republican members of the U.S. Senate hadn’t blocked S. 2432, a bill to allow those with student loans to refinance them. [TheHill]  And, also helpful if the Republican version of a student loan bill wasn’t a handout to the bank-based loan system. [TP]

It could also be helpful if local school boards weren’t trying to shave pennies at teachers’ expense for health insurance, and other benefits. [C&L]  And, if teacher retirement programs were defined benefit plans instead of less satisfactory defined contribution plans, hybrid plans, or other manifestations of financial industry subsidization.

We might also consider that “Capitalism Works.” If we want more young people to enter the field then money talks.  Teach Biology or enter one of the health care professions? Teach Algebra or enter into one of the  tech fields? Teach Business or enter finance? Teach in an elementary school or go into marketing?  Guess which will ultimately pay more?

“Solutions” which eventually created a down-draft in teacher pay and compensation packages is exactly the opposite of what common sense (and the free market) say will generate greater interest in the profession.

(3) R-E-S-P-E-C-T  is not just a song in Aretha’s repertoire.  What did teachers say were the causes of their dissatisfaction? Once more: school and working conditions, low salaries, lack of classroom resources, student misbehavior, accountability issues, lack of opportunities for development, lack of input into decision making, and factors related to school leadership. If we remove the money elements, there’s “accountability,” “lack of input into decision making, and school leadership.”

Let’s assume the old saw is correct, “10% of the students will cause 90% of the problems.”  How does the school administration handle disciplinary cases? There’s always the “pipeline” solution, it’s easier to suspend and even expel than to find the resources to deal with troubled youngsters.  However, that “solution” doesn’t do much more than to shuffle the youngster into another setting wherein he or she becomes someone else’s problem.  How many elementary schools in the country have full time counselors? Full time social workers? Access to full time psychologists? How many school districts have fully funded alternative education programs?  Again, if the “solution” is “removal,” then we’re not dealing with students, we’re dealing in statistics.

“Lack of opportunity for development?” Classroom teaching is one of the few professions in which in order to move up a person has to move out.  The “merit pay” solution might be effective IF the salaries were what they should be in the first place.   And, even “merit pay” gets tied to things which are not necessarily  indicative of quality teaching – again, test scores.  Perhaps instead of tossing bird seed into a grain silo we concentrated on how we organize our schools, how we utilize the experience and skills of exceptional teachers to mentor and advise the rookies?  How about if we gave classroom teachers more access to the decision making process about community relations? Budgeting priorities? Disciplinary and counseling options?

How about instead of announcing the Failure of West Moose Tail, and then imploding the whole institution, we ASK the people directly involved what needs to be done to improve the school’s performance on more than just standardized test scores, instead of simply firing the lot and hauling in a new batch of the graying, the greener, the females, the diverse, and the likely to leave in five years?  This “solution” doesn’t change much except the identification cards of the people who are supposed to be in the building.

Perhaps instead of doing the politically expedient, the economically parsimonious, and the socially conformative – we actually tried to find solutions to fit the problems?  Then, just maybe, we wouldn’t have to keep repeating, “Now, a warning?”

*Previous Posts: The Numbers Game Part II, The Merit Pay Mirage,  (note the discussion of the Ladue School District (MO) and merit pay criteria) The Ultimate Game, February 20, 2011. The Wrong Answer Can Always Be Found, April 10, 2011.  “Silver Bullets at Moving Targets” April 3, 2011.

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