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Alarm bells are sounding about teacher shortages across the country.  I’ve been reading a steady drumbeat of articles on the topic for at least a year.  Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, warned in the Huffington Post this month that teacher shortages could soon become a crisis. At least a dozen sessions at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association earlier this month addressed the topic. I attended two of them, but was left wondering exactly how dire things are.

Fresh national data are hard to come by. After talking to scholars who study the teacher labor market, and reading several statewide studies published in the past year, I gather that teacher shortages do exist in some regional pockets and in some teaching specialties. But at the same time, surpluses exist, and will likely continue to exist, in many school districts.

How these two forces — shortages in some places and surpluses in others — will net out across the country isn’t yet clear. Researchers at the Palo Alto-based Learning Policy Institute are crunching some numbers right now and said they expect, in an August report, to predict a teacher deficit. That’s based on federal estimates that public school teacher hiring increased 45 percent from 2011 to 2016, while enrollments in teacher preparation programs fell 35 percent between 2009 and 2014. “This mismatch suggests we are currently in a teacher shortage,” said Leib Sutcher, one of the researchers.

Unlike with other job markets, you can’t simply count unfilled job openings. That’s because schools don’t typically leave classrooms of students unattended. The jobs get filled somehow. Some researchers count the number of principals who say they are experiencing hiring difficulties. Of course, that’s subjective.

Another approach is to estimate supply and demand. But it’s not as simple as projecting student growth, then comparing the number of new teachers minted and the number retiring each year, which is easy to do. A key factor in predicting shortages is guessing how many teachers will leave the profession annually. That rate has been hovering around 8 percent over the past decade, more than double the rate in high-performing countries such as Finland, Singapore and South Korea. In the 1990s, only 5 to 6 percent of U.S. teachers left the profession each year.

Another complicating factor is the so-called “reserve pool” of teachers. For more than a decade the country had been producing a glut of new teachers, according to Richard Ingersoll, an education professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Many obtained credentials and were never able to find jobs. After the 2008 recession, tax collections plummeted and school districts had to lay off teachers. Demand for teachers fell, and fewer students enrolled in teacher training programs. Then, with the economic recovery, schools began hiring again, but enrollments continued to fall at education schools.

That didn’t lead to immediate shortages across the nation. Thanks to the pre-existing glut of certified teachers, many re-entered the job market and found teaching jobs. Has the so-called “reserve pool” of teachers now been exhausted? That’s possible.

Looking at detailed state reports is instructive. Take California. The Learning Policy Institute issued a report earlier this year, finding that 2.5 to 2.7 percent of the teachers hired there in 2013 and 2014 had a substandard teaching credential, such as an emergency certification. That’s a sign of shortage, because schools are supposed to hire applicants with full certifications first, before resorting to these candidates. Still, that’s far less than fifteen years ago, at the peak of hiring difficulties, when 14.5 percent of the teachers hired in California had a substandard credential.

“Obviously, we’re far short of that. It’s not as severe now,” said Patrick Shields, one of the authors of the California study. The report itself uses the term “emerging” shortage.

But what makes Shields worry is that more than a third of the first-year teachers had these substandard credentials. “That’s a leading indicator,” he said. “Looking into the future, it’s going to be a challenge.”

The California shortage statistics are partly suppressed by another factor: increasing class size. From the recession to 2013, California average class sizes increased from 21-22 students to 24 students. Roughly 60,000 more teachers would be needed to restore the old student-teacher ratios.

Also, the hiring pinch isn’t felt equally throughout the state. Schools with high poverty and more minority students had more of the emergency hires. Some other school districts still have a surplus of qualified candidates.

Oklahoma is another example. One August 2015 headline declared “Crisis Hits Oklahoma Classrooms…” But a September 2015 report by the American Institutes for Research (AIR), a nonprofit research firm, found that demand was outstripping supply by less than 1 percent throughout the state. Shortages were found in only three regions of Oklahoma; in the central part of the state, the researchers predicted a surplus of teachers next year.

In Massachusetts it’s a different story. A separate December 2015 AIR report found an excess supply of teachers, one that it predicted will grow over the next 10 years. Yet, there are pockets of shortages. The state doesn’t have enough minority teachers, or enough special education and English language learner educators.

Whatever the reality is, the perception of shortages is prompting policy proposals to recruit more teachers, and subsidize their training.

Penn’s Ingersoll argues that more rookie teachers are the wrong solution and that teaching shortages would disappear entirely if we could convince more veteran teachers to stay in the field. He cites the Obama Administration’s well-intentioned program to train 100,000 new math and science teachers over a decade. “But we lose 28,000 math and science teachers every year,” said Ingersoll. “Every year we wipe out the president’s initiative.”

“Turnover is the big driver of the shortages,” he said. “The problem isn’t that we don’t produce enough new teachers. The problem is that we’re not retaining enough of the teachers we already have.”

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