The Teacher Shortage Data Shortage

By Larry Sand
August 27, 2019

“The false cry that there is no teacher shortage must not go unchallenged.”

In recent times, one cannot go far without hearing piercing screams emanating from the education cognoscenti and teacher union poohbahs about the national teacher shortage. But, then again, this hysteria is hardly new. The above quote came from The Journal of the National Education Association, published in October 1921. (H/T Antonucci.)

So not much has changed over the ensuing 98 years. Just four months ago, the National Education Association, citing a new paper by the Economic Policy Institute, warned us that the “Teacher Shortage is ‘Real and Growing, and Worse Than We Thought.’” (The EPI is financially supported by the NEA, and its president is AFL-CIO boss Richard Trumka. Additionally, its board includes a bevy of union heavyweights like national teacher union leaders Randi Weingarten and Lily Eskelsen García. Hence, please keep several grains of salt at the ready if you delve into this “report.”)

At the same time, the Chicken Little crowd also sings a similar tune whose lyrics go – as the usually sane Wall Street Journal screamed in December – “Teachers Quit Jobs at Highest Rate on Record.”

So is there any truth to the “teacher shortage” and “teachers leaving the field in droves” claims? Nope. None at all.

Starting with the WSJ piece – going beyond the hysterical headline – the writers admit that “some educators may be finding jobs at other schools,” which pretty much destroys the point of the story.

Now for some data. 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?”

In 2017, education researcher and analyst Mike Antonucci looked at the “quit problem,” comparing teachers to workers in other fields, and found that “people who work in public education are among the least likely to quit their jobs in the entire United States.” Using the Bureau of Labor Statistics monthly Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey, which determines “quit data” for various industries, he writes that the rate was 23.6 percent for all American workers in 2015, but for “state and local education” employees, it was only 8.6 percent.

Additionally, the National Council on Teacher Quality reports that of the 8 percent who do leave the field, 38.3 percent of them are retiring and 29.3 percent are taking non-teaching, but other “education-related jobs” in a school or school district. So less than one-third of the 8 percent are leaving teaching to take a job in different field of endeavor.

One caveat: I am fully aware that some school districts are short on teachers and others may lack personnel in a specialized area like chemistry or special ed. But there are reasonably simple fixes for these problems which I will soon discuss in a separate post.

But for now, one more bit of data. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that as of 2015, there were 3,151,000 public school teachers in the country and a student-teacher ratio of about 16 to 1. In 1921, when NEA first sounded alarm bells about a teacher shortage, there were about 657,000 teachers in the U.S. and a student-teacher ratio of almost 33 to 1.

So, as Antonucci points out, we have almost quintupled the number of teachers since 1921 and, at the same time, cut the student-teacher ratio in half. We keep adding teachers and class sizes are shrinking, but when facts don’t fit your agenda, stick with the agenda. And sadly, far too many people are taken in by the hype.

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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.

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