The Current Teacher Shortage: A Broader Perspective
At November’s annual New Jersey Education Association Convention, Governor Phil Murphy established a task force, mostly of representatives of the state’s major education interest groups, to investigate the state’s current teacher shortage problem and develop recommendations to
Absent from the governor’s message but probably left for the study committee to ascertain are any actual data about the number of vacancies, whether they exceed the average, in which types of school districts they are typically found, and how they correspond to changes in student
Urban districts have been chronically understaffed for decades, but wide public discussion has been conspicuously lacking. Now that other districts are faced with shortages, albeit on a smaller scale, the issue has gained far greater prominence and publicity.
The Paterson School District, for example, reported earlier this school year that it had two hundred teacher vacancies, roughly a ten percent deficit, from its announced staff level of 2,100, suggesting that thousands of students are without qualified teachers in that district alone.
If a teacher shortage exists, it is for complex and multilayered reasons.
These include the recent Covid-19 pandemic, a spate of teacher retirements, a restrictive residency requirement, a tight labor market, and fewer graduating education majors, among many others.
Some teacher retirements were accelerated by the increased pressures on those working in a remote and alien learning environment. But, others may have been aided by the state’s liberal pension policies allowing teachers to retire with full pensions and nearly fully paid health benefits after completing 25 years of service.
About 118,000 certified teachers worked in New Jersey’s public schools in 2019-2020, which was approximately 1,000 fewer in 2021-22, The New Jersey Department of Education reports. By itself, that does not mean there is necessarily a shortage.
New Jersey Policy Perspective research does shows a more alarming trend—a rapid decline in the number of New Jersey college students earning teaching degrees, from more than 5,000 in 2011 to about 3,500 in 2020, representing a serious shortfall in new teachers available to keep up
with future demand.
Many reasons explain the move away from teacher education programs, including the private sector providing better alternative and more lucrative opportunities for new college graduates; the job market offering less traditional, structured and lower stress work settings, and females, who are disproportionately represented among public teachers, breaking long-held stereotypes about the type of work they choose to pursue.
First, a brief comment about the governor’s decision to establish a task force or study committee. Political officials often form these advisory groups when the matter in question is too complicated, intractable, and fraught with political difficulties to allow for quick and easy solutions.
In this case, the 25-member task force, largely comprised of teachers’ unions, school management organizations, universities and colleges officials will share many similar ideas. Given its size and make-up and to maintain a spirit of comity, the task force is will likely produce a consensus-driven report that tinkers around the edges of meaningful reform and tells us much of what is already known.
The result is likely to include a set of costly recommendations, including raising salaries sharply for new teachers accompanied by an increase in the pay of all teachers, reducing school employees’ health benefit contributions, and enhancing pension benefits for recent hires. Nonfinancial proposals will cover strategies to recruit new teachers, especially minority members; to retain recent hires; to allow easier access for those seeking to enter the profession; to improve working conditions; and to promote better public perception of teachers and the work they do.
Let me suggest several difficult and long-standing controversial issues which have defied easy resolution in the past that should but probably won’t be included in the task force’s report.
One is the long-term and immediate impact of the collective bargaining process on teacher recruitment and retention. The other is the effect of intense competition among 600 independent school districts with varying financial means vying to employ a limited number of quality staff.
The third are qualitative differences among the limited number of teacher candidates and whether school districts have the capacity and ability to properly supervise and effectively judge their performance. Teachers’ unions, which coincidently have the largest single number of task force members and enormous political influence, will play a pivotal role in the committee’s deliberations and findings undermining any effort to expand the conversation beyond its narrow self-interests.
The unions’ primary objectives are to increase the number of dues-paying members, to advocate aggressively for their needs, and to ensure through local negotiations and state legislative action that these individuals earn more, work less time, gain greater job security, and ultimately earn
generous post-retirement benefits.
Finding a solution to the teacher shortage is not high on the list of union priorities, nor should it be expected. Despite their rhetoric, unions often pay scant attention either to teachers’ starting salaries or to the salaries, quality and retention of new hires. These are matters, as they view them, reserved exclusively for school boards and administrators to manage.
The law presently allows many unions through restrictive negotiated provisions to hold down starting salaries, ensure that senior staff members receive larger increases, and create obstacles in labor agreements that restrict how much beginning teachers might earn.
Lifting any negotiated limits on what new teachers are paid to fill vacant positions, especially in critical areas of need, would be a welcomed first step, but will face strenuous local union opposition claiming that it could create salary inequities among and a serious morale gulf between new teachers and their more experienced colleagues.
While only one factor causing the teacher shortage, improving starting salaries—locally, by legislation, or both—can improve the teaching profession’s appeal to newcomers, improve recruitment, and also reduce the impact of the shortage on the workload of current teachers, though the public will almost certainly resist any increase in their local taxes to underwrite this effort.
The reason starting teachers’ salaries have remained low for decades is that unions, with the acquiescence of many school boards, have disproportionally negotiated proportionately larger increases to more senior teachers, which depresses the amount available to pay new teachers.
Common negotiated compensation models—salary guides—that require teachers with the same experience and academic background to receive the same level of compensation regardless of their particular assignment, is contrary to the goal of increasing the number of quality teachers. Not all
teaching assignments in schools are equal in terms for what their real market value is or should be. The result is that these artificially imposed salary constraints simply discourage individuals in a tight employment market from pursuing teaching positions.
School districts should have the freedom and be willing to compensate adequately trained and qualified individuals to take positions where there are established critical vacancies. Over time, the appeal of these higher salaries will generate a larger pool of potential candidates needed to fill
evolving chronic areas of teacher need.
School boards should also be prepared to offer special incentives, including a liberal tuition reimbursement program, to incentivize new or current teachers to obtain additional professional credentials so that they would be eligible to accept hard-to-fill assignments such as those in special and bilingual education, in the math and science, and in world languages, to name a few.
Expecting a rare, newly-minted teacher of physics or a bi-lingual teacher also qualified to teach high school chemistry to accept the average state minimum starting salary around $57,000, when many lucrative employment options are available in the public or private sector, simply defies basic economic logic.
If doctors and other professionals are paid according to their level of specialization and difficulty, why should this not be true also for teachers working in highly specialized areas or more challenging work settings?
In addition to collective bargaining reform, the task force will probably avoid addressing socio-economic disparities among school districts. With greater financial resources available, wealthier and sometimes larger districts with up-to-date facilities and better working conditions often pay novice teachers more and therefore face far fewer teacher shortages. Hundreds of poorer and often smaller counterparts simply can’t compete with them.
To address these inequities, bold legislative action to dramatically reduce the state’s approximately 600 school districts through mandated regionalization must be considered despite being a non-starter for most special interest groups primarily concerned with protecting members’ jobs, as it would be for most state politicians fearful of local community blowback.
Far fewer districts would reduce critical staffing needs by more efficiently deploying teaching staff to serve larger numbers of students across current district lines. It would also level the competitive playing field for specialized staff among a smaller number of remaining school districts.
Of critical, perhaps overlooked importance, is whether the teacher shortfall is a function of a numerical or a qualitative problem, or both. Are districts today hiring less qualified teachers who might not otherwise be employed in an abundant job market? If so, this could have long-range implications and open the question years from now whether recently hired new teachers will more easily acquire tenure and remain embedded in the profession, while underperforming many their colleagues for the next 20-30 years. Far more candidates generally provide a wider and better pool from which to hire better quality candidates.
Continued relaxing of established professional standards to allow easier and quicker entry into the teaching profession, including less time for preparation, training, and other current professional requirements—even on a temporary basis—will almost certainly impose far greater responsibilities and financial costs on local school officials to more closely monitor the
performance of these less trained and experienced new hires, and may also increase staff turnover for those unable to meet local district performance standards. Acceptable solutions to the recruitment dilemma must not result in diminishing overall quality and performance of novice
teachers entering the profession.
Even though heavily comprised of special interests, the task force can still serve a useful purpose if it broadens its view to consider whether students’ access to quality instructors can coincide with the rights of organized labor to regulate who may be willing to enter the profession, whether
regionalization and consolidation of 600 highly varied and often financially strapped school districts would ease the competition for the services of a smaller number of available specialized teacher candidates, and whether the state will insist on maintaining and even increasing standards for those seeking to work as teachers.
The teacher shortage involves more than a matter of responding to the demand for and increasing the supply of quality teachers; it requires a hard and detailed look at not only the future of the profession but also the many current statewide and local policies and practices that got us to this point.
Dr. Marc Gaswirth, a retired public school administrator, has written extensively for nearly 50 years about public sector bargaining and school human resources.
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