Friday, August 31

No end in sight to national teacher shortage

There's been a lot of discussion in the Times this week about the nationwide shortage of qualified teachers. First, a front page article on Monday described how schools across the country compete for teachers because of high rates of teacher turnover. Then, an editorial Wednesday contended that the shortage will persist, stunting school reform efforts, "until states, localities and the federal government start paying much more attention to how teachers are trained, hired and assigned." Today, six readers offered their own solutions, ranging from higher pay to a simplification of credentialing requirements to using retired teachers on a part-time basis.

I've always been a little baffled by reporting about the teacher shortage. I haven't seen any data to suggest that the shortage is particularly worse than it has been in the past, at least since women and minorities became able to enter other fields, nor that New York fares worse than other places with a similar wealth of employment options. In general, half of all teachers leave the profession within five years. Half stay longer. In an era when young people are encouraged to try different fields before settling on one and to work before entering graduate school, a profession where half of all people who enter choose to stick with it five years later doesn't sound bad at all.

Of course, it's still worth working to recruit better teachers and then retain them -- something the Times barely touches on. The current trend in education reform is to attach financial incentives to every desirable outcome, but I'm not sure that's what makes the most sense here. It's unlikely that the incentives schools can offer can compete with the private sector -- $5,000 help for a down payment in New York City?! Ha! -- so perhaps school districts shouldn't waste their money offering them. For young people at the beginning of their careers, starting teachers' salaries and benefits in public schools aren't all that bad -- but the working conditions often are, as Dan Brown points out in his new memoir about teaching in the Bronx. To retain teachers, schools have to make sure teachers feel safe, comfortable, and free from excessive administrative requirements. Schools must also help new teachers become better faster, so they believe it's worth it to keep teaching. Investments toward those ends would benefit schools, not just individual teachers.

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