Teacher shortage? Or misalignment of supply and demand?

According to recent media reports, states across the country are facing teacher shortages of varying degrees. Yet this isn’t breaking news: the U.S. Department of Education published a report in March that chronicles state-by-state shortages from 1990-91 through 2015-16 and shows that most states annually report shortages in at least one area.

Concern about this so-called shortage is compounded by a dwindling pipeline of future educators: The number of students enrolled in educator-preparation programs has dropped precipitously over the past several years. The most current Title II data shows a 30 percent decline in enrollment in U.S. educator-preparation programs from 2009 to 2013. And while it’s possible that this is a cyclical downturn driven by a bad economy, numbers from a recent ACT report don’t bode well for a turnaround: the number of ACT-tested high school graduates who expressed interest in an education major or profession declined by more than 16 percent between 2010 and 2014, even as the overall number of students tested increased by about 18 percent.

The educator-preparation programs led by Deans for Impact’s member deans have experienced a decline in enrollment that matches the national trend: In 2013, our programs enrolled about 13,500 students, down from about 19,221 students in 2009*. But this decline wasn’t uniform. In fact, seven programs saw their enrollment increase during this same period.

This is a key point about the teacher shortage: it’s not universal. There are some states that are experiencing significant, dramatic shortfalls — California springs to mind — but other states, such as New York, appear to have plenty of teachers. I think what’s really going on here is a misalignment of supply and demand, both in subject matter and in geography. There are other factors too, including the status of the teaching profession and the significant cuts to K-12 budgets that occurred during the Great Recession.

So what steps might we take to address the supply-and-demand aspects of the so-called shortage?  There are at least two actions we should take immediately:

Create better alignment and communication between educator-preparation programs and K-12 districts. The degree of communication between educator-preparation programs and the districts that hire their graduates varies widely. Building stronger lines of communication could help educator-preparation programs understand more about districts’ needs as well as the perceived strengths and weaknesses of their graduates. Educator-preparation programs should be preparing teachers for the roles that employers need to fill.

Give educator-preparation programs more (and better) data about their graduates. Right now, most educator-preparation programs have access to fairly limited data about their graduates once they enter the field. Programs struggle to collect straightforward data like whether and where their graduates are working as teachers, and how long they’re staying in the profession. Increasing the availability (and accuracy) of this kind of data could help program leaders better understand the post-graduation trajectories of their students and identify which features of their programs appear to be working (or not).

Although we may not know what’s driving the alleged teacher shortage today, we should take action to develop a more robust understanding of the educator workforce. In the months ahead, you’ll hear more from us on this important subject.

*These numbers exclude Relay Graduate School of Education, which did not enroll any students captured by Title II data until 2012.

Charis Anderson

Senior Director of Communications

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