The National Teacher (Union Member) Shortage

NEA/AFT and their friends in the media try to make hay of teacher shortage myth.

For years, teachers unions have been moaning that nearly half of all new educators leave the profession within the first five years. They and others have repeated the claim so many times that it has taken on the mantle of truth. But like so much else the unions say, fact checking reveals something quite different. Veteran teacher union watchdog Mike Antonucci has been doing his best to destroy the “revolving door of teachers” fairytale for years. And now we have a report released in April from the National Center of Education which finds that only 17 percent of new teachers had left the profession between 2008 and 2012. While this new data may put a crimp in the teachers unions’ argument, they are sure to keep complaining about that 17 percent, and cite as reasons: poor pay, a good economy, the Koch Brothers, a bad economy, ALEC, too much testing, too little respect, corporate ed reform, etc. But as Antonucci points out, teachers typically leave their jobs for pretty much the same reasons as everyone else – spouse relocating, giving birth, poor health, etc.

So with the “five and out” myth debunked, the education press needed a new juicy story to jump on, and unsurprisingly, The New York Times came to the rescue. Motoko Rich’s “Teacher Shortages Spur a Nationwide Hiring Scramble (Credentials Optional)” sent all the usual suspects reaching for smelling salts. Her article can be summed up in the second paragraph,

Across the country, districts are struggling with shortages of teachers, particularly in math, science and special education — a result of the layoffs of the recession years combined with an improving economy in which fewer people are training to be teachers.

Then three days later, Frank Bruni – also writing in The Times – doubled down with “Can We Interest You in Teaching?,” in which he also wildly overstates the problem. He refers to teachers as “pawns and punching bags,” which is faithful to the union meme of teachers as ultimate victims. And then in the fifth paragraph he solemnly informs us, “To make matters worse, more than 40 percent of the people who do go into teaching exit the profession within five years.” Oy.

Needless to say, the teachers unions happily jumped all over the new scare story. American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten (whom Bruni quoted in his piece saying, “The No. 1 thing is giving teachers a voice, a real voice.”) attributed the problem to low pay and “being left of out (sic) key decisions about education policy.” (Note to Bruni and Weingarten: if you really want to give teachers “a voice,” have real teachers – not union bosses – talk to writers about the issues.)

More or less taking the Weingarten tack, the National Education Association weighed in with “Want to Reduce the Teacher Shortage? Treat Teachers Like Professionals.” In These Times, warns us that “‘The Teacher Shortage’ Is No Accident—It’s the Result of Corporate Education Reform Policies.” (The writer, Kevin Prosen, is a chapter leader in New York City’s teachers union.) But perhaps the most revealing attitude of all came from Indiana State Teachers Association president Teresa Meredith who opines, “There really is a climate that’s been created, and we have to look at the climate and figure out how to fix it. Who cares what the data says (sic) because when you have administrators who don’t have applicants before the first day of school, there’s a shortage, end of story.”

Meredith is right. Who needs or wants pesky data when you are trying to make an emotional plea? But for the rest of us who care about facts….

To be sure some districts may be understaffed and other districts may come up short in specific subject areas, but there is no nationwide teacher shortage. Via the National Council on Teacher Quality, Mike Antonucci points out that we are “producing waaaaay more elementary teachers than the system can reasonably absorb.” Antonucci also indicates that in the years leading up to the recession, “reports of teacher shortages were constantly in the news. In response, America added 140,000 teachers to the workforce. The recession hit, and 63,000 of those teachers disappeared – either through direct layoffs, or attrition when veteran teachers retired.”

Though the exact number of teachers actually laid off in California is not currently clear, the state planned to release 1,000 working teachers in March, an increase from the previous year. Also, Los Angeles just laid off 382 teachers.

Sounds as if there are plenty of available teachers around to fill the “shortage.”

And then we have the redoubtable Cato Institute senior fellow of education policy Andrew Coulson, who writes that there is an “Evidence Shortage for Teacher Shortage.” He notes that we have been on a hiring binge since 1970. Since that time,

…the number of teachers has grown six times faster than the number of students. Enrollment grew about 8 percent from 1970 to 2010, but the teaching workforce grew 50 percent. There are a LOT more public school teachers per child today, so how can districts and states still claim to be facing ‘teacher shortages?’

Coulson finishes with,

So does America have a ‘teacher shortage’ writ large? No. We had 22.3 pupils/teacher in 1970 and 16 p/t in 2012. Compared to the past, we are rolling in teachers. If we have too few in some fields and too many in others, it is for the reasons described above–mistakes in policy and/or execution….

Any questions?

So all the teachers unions and their friends in the media are left with is the “Who cares what the data say” argument. But if teacher union leaders want to legitimately whine about something, they could honestly say “We are bleeding unionized teachers.” That would be an accurate statement as the union share of the teacher workforce is at an historic low. In fact, for the first time since the rise of the teachers unions in the 1980s, the percentage of US teachers represented by them has fallen below 50 percent. The advance of right-to-work states, the charter school movement and various voucher programs across the country are to be credited for the shift. That shortage is indeed bad news for the unions, but one that benefits just about everyone else.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

1 reply
  1. Doc4u says:

    There is NO shortage of teachers – there is a superabundance of illegal aliens in the classrooms
    overworking teachers and short-changing American students. Deport or execute ALL illegal aliens.
    Problem solved.

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