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Teacher Shortage Claim Is Still Short on Data

No matter how many times it’s repeated, the national teacher shortage story is a canard.

In the months since I last wrote about the alleged teacher shortage crisis, I had hoped the hysteria would abate. But alas, it hasn’t; if anything, it has increased, with the teachers unions at the forefront of the bogus story.

Champion alarm bell-ringer Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, was in fine form when she penned “How the Teacher Shortage Could Turn Into a Crisis” for the Huffington Post last month. Her claims are all ridiculous, of course, but she states them with such certitude that they sound quite believable if one doesn’t know better. “…we lose an alarming number of teachers once they enter the profession— between 40 and 50 percent of new teachers leave within five years. Add to that the loss of mid- and late-career teachers, who have honed their skills but can’t see staying until retirement, and you’ve got a teacher brain-drain unseen in any other profession.” The National Education Association advises, “Want to reduce the teacher shortage? Treat teachers like professionals.” The California Teachers Association informs us that we are on the verge of “The Perfect Storm: California Impending Teacher Shortage Crisis.

And it’s not only the unions that have been infected with the “sky is falling” mentality. In February, Education Week reported “Teacher Shortages Put Pressure on Governors, Legislators.” And a Hechinger Report piece recently warned that “California faces a dire teacher shortage. Should other states worry, too?” Surprisingly, however, the gloom actually lifts near the end of the Hechinger article and clarity ultimately prevails. Dan Goldhaber, director of the Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research puts things into perspective by introducing data which show that between 1984 and 2013 teacher production has increased overall, with a few dips here and there. He calmly states, “This does not look to me like the production of teachers in this country is falling off a cliff.”

Another Hechinger piece posted last month continued the Goldhaber line. “Cries about national teacher shortages might be overblown” takes a look at various state reports. In 2013-2014 in California, 2.5 to 2.7 percent of the teachers hired had emergency certification, a sign of shortage, because schools hire applicants with full certifications first. But fifteen years ago, 14.5 percent of the teachers hired in California were not fully credentialed.

Then, just last week, the National Center for Teacher Quality claimed flatly in its newsletter that we are in the midst of a drummed up teacher shortage crisis. Acknowledging that the number of new teachers produced since 2008 has declined, NCTQ president Kate Walsh points out that “the drop was preceded by a three-decade period of enrollment growth, far outpacing the demand year-in and year-out. America’s 1,450+ institutions which train teachers have been OVER-enrolling for years.” She adds that, “The current decline is what we normally see when unemployment dips and the pool of folks looking for work isn’t as large as in other years.”

Taking an even longer look, the late Cato Institute senior fellow of education policy Andrew Coulson wrote in 2015 that there is an “Evidence Shortage for Teacher Shortage.” He notes that since 1970, “…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?” (Emphasis added.)

Coulson finishes his piece, “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 (because of) mistakes in policy and/or execution.”

Also, Weingarten’s assertion that “between 40 and 50 percent of new teachers leave within five years” has always been, and still is, a crock. She and other union leaders have been telling that lie since the last millennium. Fortunately the debunking has been picking up. Just a year ago, EdSource’s John Fensterwald reported, “Half of new teachers quit profession in 5 years? Not true, new study says.” He writes that a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Educational Statistics found that “10 percent of new teachers in 2007-08 didn’t return the following year, increasing cumulatively to 12 percent in year three, 15 percent in year four and 17 percent in the fifth year. The totals include teachers who were let go and subsequently didn’t find a job teaching in another district.” Just last week, Bellwether Education Partners policy expert Chad Aldeman reported in Education Next, “Turnover rates for inexperienced teachers have been falling, not rising, while turnover has risen among more experienced teachers.”

So after five years one-in-six teachers are gone. Hardly a cause for smelling salts. In fact, other fields have a much higher turnover rate. In banking and finance, for example, the departure rate in 2013 was 17.2 percent and in healthcare it was 16.8 percent. The average for all industries in 2013 was 15.1 percent. So basically, in five years, the teaching profession loses roughly the same percentage of employees that other fields lose every year. So, comparatively speaking, we are hardly “bleeding teachers.”

While I have been looking at the big picture here, to be sure there are some school districts that are short on teachers and other districts may lack teachers in certain subject areas. But rather than promulgating doomsday prophecies, how about simply addressing those specific shortages – like paying science teachers a bit more money to lure them to districts where they are needed.

There is one area in decline that is worth noting, however: unionized teachers. Taking a look at the latest numbers available, courtesy of Mike Antonucci, we see that the National Education Association lost 42,000 active members in 2013, “bringing the union’s total losses among working public school employees to more than 310,000 (10.7%) over the past five years.” That’s certainly bad news for the union’s bottom line, but the rest of us aren’t going to be shedding any tears over that.

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.

Life After Deasy

It was only a matter of time before the Los Angeles school chief was run out of town.

John Deasy is the latest to exit the fast-moving revolving door known as Los Angeles School Superintendent. The job – really an impossible one – saw Roy Romer replace Ray Cortines in 2001. Romer in turn was replaced by David Brewer in 2006, who was replaced by Cortines in 2009, who was replaced by Deasy in 2011. Now the octogenarian Cortines is back for a third stint as chief – for how long is anyone’s guess. Deasy is the fourth California superintendent in the last two years to be driven from a job that has the shelf life of homogenized milk.

Since his resignation on October 16th, much has been written about Deasy, who wore his good and bad traits on his sleeve. He admittedly had little use for political niceties, and at times seemed to enjoy getting up in people’s faces. As Doug McIntyre wrote in the Los Angeles Daily News, “Even Deasy’s supporters acknowledge he can be prickly, humorless, stubborn and thin-skinned.” Others have described him as bull-headed and impatient. School board member Steve Zimmer pointed out that he frequently used a sledgehammer – sometimes joyfully so – where a scalpel would have sufficed. Deasy’s heavy-handedness is exemplified by the Miramonte fiasco. Mark Berndt, a veteran teacher, was removed from the classroom after feeding his second graders cookies laced with his semen. At the same time, a colleague at the school was accused of inappropriately touching a female student. Instead of launching an immediate internal investigation to ferret out other possible miscreants, Deasy further destabilized the school and angered parents by removing every teacher from the campus, without any indication that others were in any way involved.

Deasy had other troubles. There was the wildly ambitious and ultimately bungled $1 billion iPad program in which he sought to put a computer in the hands of every student in the district. The rollout began amid confusion over whether or not students would be allowed to take the devices home and who’d be held responsible if they were lost or stolen. Then, upon receiving the computers, many students easily breached their security locks and began using the devices for non-school-related purposes. Additionally, many were outraged over the program’s bloated billion-dollar price tag. Deasy mercifully halted the process only after emails revealed he had discussed a possible contract with Apple before the bidding even started.

Then there is the “MiSiS crisis,” which came about when an online school information system was rushed into place prematurely, resulting in thousands of students being left with no class schedules. It’s hard to make the Obamacare rollout look good by comparison, but somehow Deasy and LAUSD accomplished it.

The United Teachers of Los Angeles was especially brutal toward Deasy. In April, 2013, it mounted “Whoopsie Deasy,” a campaign that sought to get rid of the controversial chief. The union encouraged teachers to give the superintendent a “no-confidence” vote, listing 10 reasons it considered Deasy a menace to the teaching profession. Their case included the fact that teachers had not received a raise in six years, that “testing was overtaking teaching” and that the superintendent was too cozy with “billionaire outsiders.” The poll clearly resonated with union members who delivered the no-confidence vote by a margin of 10 to 1.

But the real reason that UTLA regularly hammered the superintendent and his policies was the same reason the reformers supported him. He wanted to shake up the sclerotic system and viewed the union and its cronies on the school board as impediments to his pro-child agenda.

Deasy’s supporters quickly brushed the negatives aside and pointed to all the good he did for the district. He tried to bring teacher evaluations into the 21st Century. He championed charter schools as a way to let kids escape from district failure factories. He was a supporter of the Parent Trigger, which empowers parents to force a change of governance if a school is underperforming. He testified for the plaintiffs in the Vergara case, where Judge Rolf Treu ruled that the state’s archaic seniority, tenure and dismissal statutes were unconstitutional, adding that the evidence submitted “shocks the conscience.”

Reformers also give Deasy credit for the district’s improved test results but this argument is problematic. The test scores did go up a little, but it’s difficult to pinpoint just what factors led to the small increase. A recent study by The Brookings Institution showed that superintendents on average account for just “0.3 percent of student differences in achievement.”

Deasy has also been credited with a lower dropout rate. But again, it’s hard to know what the truth is. In April 2013, LAUSD reported a 66 percent grad rate. Then earlier this month, the district proudly announced it was up to 77 percent. Sounds impressive, right?

Well, not really.

It is 77 percent if you don’t include the students who couldn’t hack a district school and were placed in what are euphemistically called “alternative schools” where the grad rate can be as low as 5 percent. This is tantamount to saying that Joe Smith’s batting average is .300 – if you don’t count the 50 times he struck out. Also not included in the data are the “invisible dropouts” – those who never set foot in a high school. They are not counted as high school dropouts because, well, they never dropped in. Nevertheless, they are dropouts. Hence, we need to seriously rework the way we measure graduation rates before we can attribute credit to anyone for better numbers.

Devil or angel, Deasy’s troubles are not unique. Big city superintendents have faced similar daunting tasks and invariably wind up quitting or getting fired within a few short years of accepting the job. The most dramatic example of this pattern was the fiery three-year stint of reformer Michelle Rhee had in Washington D.C. In fact, referring to the LA superintendent position, Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, told LA School Report, “I don’t know a single person on earth who would want that terrible job. It won’t be a change agent. It will be a status quo candidate who will make life pleasant for himself by enjoying all the wrapping of the superintendency and being smart enough not to try and change a thing.”

The question then becomes, “Is LAUSD manageable at all?” Is a district that includes 31 smaller cities covering 720 square miles with 655,000 students who speak 87 languages, taught by 32,000 teachers (plus a support staff of 35,000) too big not to fail?

One possible solution is to break up the behemoth district – hardly a new idea; it’s been floating around for years. The northern part of the city, the San Fernando Valley, tried to break away in 2000. Then, in 2004, mayoral candidate Bob Hertzberg said that his first priority, if elected, would be to lead “a task force of teachers, parents, principals and other experts to come up with a plan to create smaller, community-based districts.” In 2006, state Assemblyman Keith Richman introduced legislation to split “the 727,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District into more than a dozen smaller districts, with the break-up overseen by a nine-member commission of mayors from the 27 cities that the district serves, the state superintendent of public instruction and university professors.” Most recently, Marc Litchman, who unsuccessfully challenged Rep. Brad Sherman for the 30th Congressional District in Los Angeles, said the first bill he would introduce would be to split up L.A. Unified. “The schools have to perform, and I think we’ve all been through this for quite some time. They’re not performing to the level we all hoped they would. In Los Angeles, the biggest barrier to that is the school district,” he said.

The problem with the dissolution idea is that it would result in power being ceded by those currently in charge. The LA school board and the teachers union will fight tooth and claw to keep the mammoth school district intact – no matter how unmanageable and dysfunctional it is.

Another change scenario is underway in New Orleans. Last month, the city became the country’s first all-charter district. Charter schools are public schools, funded by taxpayer dollars but run by largely independent boards. These schools get to avoid most of the red tape and union influence typical in a district contract. Teachers unions don’t have much of a presence in NOLA. The United Teachers of New Orleans, which had 5,800 members before Hurricane Katrina in 2005, has dwindled down to 530. The small size and independent nature of charter schools is a disincentive to labor organizers. “The same amount of effort that it takes to negotiate a contract with a district, you spend on one school,” a union leader in Louisiana said. Of course, teachers could exercise a “local only” option which would give them greater control over their own destiny, be more child-friendly and excludes costly membership in a state and national affiliate.

Unfortunately, without a cataclysmic act of nature wreaking havoc on Los Angeles, this scenario too would run up against massive resistance from all the usual suspects. It would take a herculean effort by maverick legislators or a well-funded ballot initiative to make an all-charter district a reality.

So until then, we will suffer along with a yet-to-be-named superintendent who will either be a Deasy-type provocateur, burning out after a short time or, more likely, we will be treated to a make-nice type who will not rock the LAUSD boat. The losers, as always, will be the children who could have better but for the self-serving demands of the grown-ups captaining a ship that is constantly taking on water.

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.