Michael Q. McShane

A recent Washington Post article making the rounds on social media claims that there are widespread teacher shortages across the country. This argument is not new. It seems like nearly every year around back-to-school time we hear that schools are struggling to find teachers, and that it’s all because of No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, the Common Core, Republican governors, a lack of respect, or whatever trendy topic is central in the education policy zeitgeist.

Let’s cut through all of that. America has been on a teacher (and other school staff) hiring bonanza for decades. Ben Scafidi of Kennesaw State University has shown that while the total student population in American public schools grew by 100% from 1950 to 2009, the number of teachers grew by 243 percent and administrators and other staff grew by a whopping 709 percent. If that’s not enough, Mike Antonucci wrote earlier this week that since 2008, the American student population has remained essentially stagnant while the number of teachers has grown by 12.4%. He quotes noted researcher Richard Ingersoll stating that the “ballooning” teacher workforce is financial “ticking time bomb.”

Is struggling to keep up rates of teacher growth far outpacing student growth really the same as a “shortage?” I don’t think so.

Since at least the 1950s, America has prioritized reducing class sizes. Pursuing that policy has had consequences. It has meant hiring a lot more teachers, and, generally, paying them less. In other words, the public school system requires more and more teachers each year and has less to offer them. We shouldn’t be surprised when public schools struggle to fill teaching positions. Focusing less on class size reduction and more on hiring the best possible teachers that we can (and paying them accordingly) could help.

How we pay teachers matters as well. It similarly should not surprise us that we see schools struggling to find math and science teachers. Because we pay all teachers equally though step-and-lane pay scales, those who can make more money outside of schools (like those with backgrounds in math and science) are forced to take a financial hit when they decide to become a teacher. Allowing for pay variations that take into account the labor market demands for different skill sets is one way we might attract more math and science teachers.

Herbert Stein’s law states that trends that can’t continue, won’t. Continuing to expand the teaching workforce and compensating them through pay schemes out of the 1920s is not going to get us the teaching workforce our children need. Call it whatever you want, but it isn’t good for kids.

About the Author

Michael McShane

Mike McShane is the Director of Education Policy for the Show-Me Institute. He is a former high school teacher and earned his PhD in Education Policy at the University of Arkansas. Before coming to the Show-Me Institute, Mike worked at the American Enterprise Institute as a research fellow.