Plain English with Derek Thompson - America’s National Teacher Shortage Looming Crisis or Media Myth


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Tell you what’s really going on.

Listen now, Welcome back to plain English.


I hope you had a nice Labor Day weekend.

America students are fully back at school this month.

And according to many media sources, districts won’t have nearly enough teachers to greet them.

The Washington Post has warned of a quote catastrophic teacher shortage ABC World News Tonight called it a growing crisis, The Wall Street Journal, warned of a quote dog-eat-dog scramble to hire under qualified teachers.


And we have several National surveys now, That show a surge of teachers planning to quit or retire early.

This sounds really, really bad and four weeks.

I’ve been watching the American national teacher shortage narrative Bloom across the media landscape and it made me curious.


Is it real or is it not at the same time in our inbox planning this shit

I’m not sure there’s any other topic that has been more requested in the last few months than the phenomenon of the teacher shortage.

We’ve got Marissa from Missouri.


Writing quote, I’m a high school math teacher in Missouri.

I have a math, undergraduate degree, a master’s degree in educational Administration, as well as a master’s in math.

I’m curious if you could address the teacher shortage or teacher, Exodus, that is happening and how it will impact America in the near future, we have Kevin who writes there is currently a teacher shortage in the u.s. elementary school system.


What do we need to do to help the next generation of students?

Get educated, we have Eric who writes it seems.

As if there’s a national teacher shortage that is only going to keep getting worse.

So I reported this Out.

I called a bunch of Education experts to ask if the teacher shortage was real.


And today you’re going to hear from one of them.


Schwartz is today’s guest, she is a senior policy researcher at the Rand Corporation focused on K through 12.

Education, Heather is widely quoted, widely cited among education, researchers and education reporters.


Especially on this issue the state of the teaching profession and fair warning.

I think this episode might surprise some people and I hope not upset them because as you’re about to hear Heather does not entirely by To The Narrative of a national teacher shortage.


But she also thinks there are some very serious problems with the state of the teaching profession.

So the goal of this podcast is not only to pierce false and maybe overly catastrophic claims about our school system.

But also to make clear what problems with the American education system today really are catastrophic.


As always, please continue sending your feedback, your emails to plain English at

I’m Derek Thompson.

This is plain English.


Heather shorts, welcome to the podcast.

Hi, thanks for having me.

So, in the last few weeks we’ve seen all these news headlines about a national teacher shortage before we get into the details of what exactly is happening here under the hood, I love you to give me a thesis statement on how you feel about the news Narrative of a quote catastrophic and quote national teacher shortage.


What do you make of that narrative and whether or not?

It’s true.

I think it’s overblown It is a messy story to summarize into a neat single sound bite because the shortage is very so much by district and state.


So yes, there are many districts that have shortages, are as Day, quote catastrophic.

I don’t think so.

So, let’s talk about where there is a teacher shortage and what teachers, there is a shortage of because to your point, this is clumpy, this is spiky.


It’s not a national phenomenon necessarily But there are clearly districts, where shortages exist there might even be entire states where shortages as exist and there might be specific kinds of teachers that districts are struggling to hire enough of.

So, help us understand the geography of this spiky shortage and which teachers, which kind of teachers are affected.


And there might be shortages of teachers in certain schools and not others, even within the, same school district.

So, there is layer upon layer of very Mission here.

So right now it looks like shortages are extreme and Florida.


And Arizona.

We’ve been seeing coverage about districts in those States, recruiting military, vets to come into the classroom and Florida switching to four-day School weeks, in Arizona, for lack of teachers.

So that’s one thing.

So, there’s geography as a source of variation, then there’s specialty area.


Historically long before the pandemic ever started, there have been Shortages and special education.

Teachers substitute teachers Math, teachers science teachers and now fast forward to where we are.

Now, the areas where we hear District leader saying they have the strongest shortages are in substitute teachers far in a way, that’s the.


That is the area where the most districts say they have the greatest shortage bus drivers special education teachers and to Six extent elementary teachers math, teacher science teachers and other areas.


Why are those positions historically, so hard to hire for?

They are so historically, there, these are areas of growth.

So and there’s an interesting paper that came out last last year in 2021 looking over a 30-year span from night with the late 1980s up through 18 and in over that time the number of teachers nationally has grown from about 2.5 million to the four million.


So there’s a significant increase in the total number of Elementary and secondary teachers, what’s been driving that?

So the author’s hypothesize which I think is really reasonable that middle and high schools have been creased the number of courses required for our math and science.


That’s triggering the need for Our math and science teachers.

The number of students who have been classified as needing special education.

Services has grown significantly, thus requiring a greater number of special education teachers and then as elementaries that there’s been a class size reduction over that 30-year period from something like an average of 25 students per class down to somewhere around twenty one or Twenty.


I’m not remembering the exact number there, but if you’re decreasing class size, you’re increasing the number of teachers work.

I are to serve and a given number of students.

One thing that I’m hearing from your analysis is that a lot of trends that are historical are being treated as a cute and specific to 2022.


So we’ve seen historical difficulty to higher up science, teachers, and historical difficulty to hire special, ed teachers, and historical difficulty to hire substitute teachers.

We’ve often seen we’ve also seen over the last few decades that the Deep South and some rural areas have consistently struggled to Hire enough teachers.


And again, we’re seeing that there was a 2022.

Government survey that found that vacancy rates for special ed teachers.

Specifically was four times higher than for physical Ed instructors over the previous few years.

So, one theme that I think you could that one could write sort of pulling up from all of this, is that a lot of news, headline writers in the summer of 2022 are treating as specific to this year issues that are relatively chronic.


In the, in the education industry is that a true?

Upshot number one and number two.

What if anything is special to 2022?

Yeah, I do agree with that.

I do agree with so much media has been covering chronic problems and treating them as if they’re not.


Chronic, I do think that the pandemic has exacerbated, chronic problems, for example, I think the substitute teacher shortage is More severe now than it was prepend emic and why well, districts are competing with other Industries for low-paid workers.


And another thing I think is different.

Now during the pandemic, that’s not just the same old, same old, chronic problems that we’ve been seeing for decades, is that teacher morale has plummeted.

So, for example, in 2016 before the pandemic ever started, 75 percent of teachers, nationally representative surveys said.


The stress and disappointments of the job for worth it.

Okay, now we go forward, two years and twenty eighteen seventy.

Two percent teacher said that now a flash into 2020.

Just when the pandemic started 58 percent of teachers, said that the stress and disappointments of the job are worth it, then in 2021 51 percent of teachers.


Now, twenty twenty-two, forty-four percent of teachers.

So that hopefully, 44 percent of teachers are saying the stress and the disappointments.

The Jabra Versa compared to 75, Percent.

What was that six years ago?

One of the reasons I think why there’s been this prevailing Narrative of a national teacher.


Hiring crisis, is the you take that statistic.

You take the fact that teacher morale has plummeted by looks, like 40 44 percent, which is huge and you combine that with the fact that local government education hiring has also declined, pretty significantly, right before the pandemic, there were about Eight million people who were employed according to the federal government under local government, education, and that fell to 7.3 million.


So it declined by about 700 thousand and then it’s only increased to 7 point 7 million.

So we appear at least underneath the rubric of local government education to still be down 300,000 workers.

I want to take this issue, one by one.


I want to first ask you if that’s not teachers.

Who is it?

And then let’s talk about the issue of teaching morale.

So we’re down three hundred thousand local government, education workers.

Who are they?

If not teachers.

Well, when the pandemic first struck and we’re in March 20, 20 schools, just closed over that spring and summer.


There was a significant decline in the number of paraprofessionals and cafeteria workers bus drivers.

Other non instructional support staff roles they left.

The Industry, so, to speak.

And those numbers haven’t completely recovered.


So that’s part of your story.

There are good.

There’s also just natural attrition like you’re in here teachers retiring or we’ve deciding to quit at rates that are that are consistent with what they’ve been pre-pandemic.


And districts not replenishing.

Those roles at the in that 2019.

I’m sorry 2020 2021 year.

So that’s parts of districts are now have been building back and in many cases expanding the number of staff that they apply above pre-pandemic levels and that’s why I think we are seeing some of the shortages now is that in some cases districts, are trying to fill newly expanded Ended open positions that they did not have pre-pandemic on teacher, morale.


You know, speaking of chronic issues teachers have been exhausted for a while.

They’ve been underpaid for a long time.

They’ve been stressed out and you just pointed out that according to polls, they are more burned out there than ever and more inclined to quit than ever.


And that is really, really important whether or not we call this phenomenon that teacher shortage, but as long as we’re Evaluating whether or not a national teacher shortage is actually happening.

It seems really important to ask this question, what is the relationship between the share of teachers who say they are more inclined to quit?


And the number of teachers who actually quit, like we are seeing a huge rise in intention to quit the teaching profession, but are we actually seeing a mass Exodus?

Not seeing a mass Exodus and the relationship between saying you intend to quit and actually quitting is about three, two one.


So about three times as many teachers say they intend to quit as actually go on and do quit.

This is based on one study and then we did this a similar study of principles and found school principals and found a similar roughly similar relationship.

So yes, it’s inflated.


When you say I’m tending to quit.

Does not necessarily mean you’re walking out the door.

But what do we make of the fact that morale has been eroding?

It’s not just hovering at pre chemical levels, it significantly eroding does that mean that teachers are potentially going to quit in a few years from now?


Does it mean that they are talking to their friends?

Social networks is a really important way that teachers come into the field and does it, does it discourage prospective teachers from entering the field?

And of course, it’s bad for the teachers themselves to have that love.

And it’s bad for their students.


So, the morale problem, like you said, really matters in and of itself, whether or not, it translates into teachers, walking out the door, you said it better than I did.

And I’m really, really glad that we’re making a point to hit this hard because sometimes in, like, debunking a media narrative, someone, in my position, or maybe your position can come across saying, oh, there’s nothing to see here.


There’s no problem here.

There’s no catastrophic national teacher shortage according to the data that we We have and therefore, you shouldn’t worry about this and I feel like it’s much more reasonable to say, look, based on the data that we have, which by the way, is pretty crappy across the board.

We don’t have great National Data on teacher, vacancy rates District by District across the country, but we don’t, we’re debunking that narrative.


But we’re still holding up this narrative that morale among the teaching profession is plummeting, and that could mean potentially a teacher shortage in the next few years as it, bubbles up and Bubbles up and creates this.

Wave of quitting for whatever reason.

So I think it’s really really important just to hit that that point especially hard as any other point you want to make there before I move on to the next question.


Well yes if there is a story here which is the morale story that one I think is not overblown.

I do think it’s very concerning.

I do think it’s National it.

Do think it really means the district should be listening to their teachers because the sources of stress and we know that stress is the number one reason the teachers leave, like we did a survey.


A of about 1,000 teachers, who left the profession no longer teach and asked why it’s job-related stress was the number one and it was about twice as common as low pay.

That’s not to say, pay doesn’t matter, pay definitely matters and in places with lower pay it’s harder to find teachers to fill the positions, Arizona being an example of that right now.


So paid matters, but Workforce can workplace conditions matter, equally if not more for teachers.

So this raises another question for me, you’re saying there is evidence for a nationwide crisis of cratering teacher morale but we’ve just made the point that there are huge differences between school districts, state by state county by county and teachers have been underpaid and stressed out for a long time.


So why are we seeing teacher morale plummet across the country?

Is it, is it just the pandemic?

This isn’t there’s a lot of hypotheses floating around and not a lot of firm answers.

So the hypotheses floating around is that politicization of schools has increased teacher stress.


Helping kids catch up academically from the pandemic, another major source of stress, the mental health needs of students definite, another source of stress, the student and the height and rates of student misbehavior, it’s cool.


This this year, and last year, also, another source of stress.

So, at least those four are ones that are commonly bubbling up in surveys as sources of stress.

We also see, it’s something that I I didn’t mention in as a cause of teacher shortages, some kind of going back to one of your prior questions is Teachers sort, they migrated across schools and districts over time, such that certain Schools.


They’re harder to staff and they have much more severe shortages make a high-poverty schools schools with a large number of students of color those.

Those are often one in the same schools and there’s they tend to have And store, eclis and throughout the pandemic they’ve had stronger teacher, shortages, and teachers are tend to migrate from hard to staff schools to easier to staff schools from lower paid positions into higher-paid positions from Urban into Suburban districts, for example.


So we’re seeing this complicating the picture even more, even though we have more teachers in the country nationally than we did 30 years ago.

We it’s not true that every district has sufficient Power of teachers because teachers are moving internally across positions to ones where the working conditions tend to be easiest.


So when I wrote my article in the Atlantic on the teacher shortage, the number one reaction from teachers.

The number one critical reaction from teachers was that I failed to account for a fact that there’s been a huge decline in the number of qualified teachers in the number of certified.


Teachers, do you see this as a real concern?

I do see this as a real concern, the fact that it’s one thing to have a completely unsafe position, which is the vacancy rates that we’ve been talking about.

And I’m saying that, I think that the vacancy rates have been going down this year, relative to the prior years in the pandemic.


So that’s a step in the right direction.


We need to, you know, even with under qualified person.

It’s better to have a fill position and absolutely no one in the physician.

Is it good enough?


We don’t want these a lot of under qualified staff in the position.


So in there are, in fact, many more under qualified staff, there’s that that paper that looked at what did this across the country?

And it’s very regionally specific.

So, the degree of the problem, really depends on the wear of that you’re asking.


And so that is it.

We for example, its high rates of under qualified staff in Florida and in Arizona working off me.

Right here.

I know there were some other states to Mississippi was another where it’s their schools are having to find people who are not certified for the position to teach the position this yet.


This is very concerning for the long-term to me because we we already have teachers who could use more content knowledge on the whole.

This is something that’s it’s really important.

That teachers know, the subject area that they teach even when certified.


There’s some Concerns about teachers needing to be better prepared for their position.

Now, we add this whole nother layer, sort of a more extreme version of this, which is staff were coming in, who are really quite unprepared for the position.

And this is this does not spell good things for the students of these these teachers.


Obviously there’s variation in quality of teachers, but this is as a trend, it’s definitely going in the wrong direction.

We want more qualified teachers in these positions.

And it’s not the other way around so I do think it’s a problem that we should be really quite worried about.


This might sound like a stupid question but like are non licensed teachers worse teachers because I do know of some other Industries where there are all sorts of Occupational licensing funnels.

That people have to move through in order to work in that position, but sometimes that’s just a lot of bureaucratic red tape.


Type, whereas on the other hand, clearly there exists such a thing as an under qualified worker as a bad worker.

And you know, you don’t want lots of people who are totally unprepared to teach math who don’t understand, algebra teaching algebra.

So what we understand to be the relationship between like licensing and quality.


There are benefits to licensing where I think there’s more gray area.

There’s the benefits of traditional certification versus alternative certification and that’s the alternative certification.

I’m tend to be fairly agnostic about this since think that alternative certification has a place in the preparation to because it’s a way to draw more teachers into the field and help to diversify the pipeline of teachers.


So alternative certification and certification.

Traditional certification.

Roots are important both important and I think the needed components of the pipeline building the no certification whatsoever.

These are Chauncey measures those.


I feel are Band-Aids and not ones that we should be looking to.

As are the long-term precedent to help find people to staff schools.

So, we’ve Hit The Narrative of the national teacher shortage, we’ve hit the issue of teacher morale.


One of the most surprising things that I discovered when I was reporting out, this story for the Atlantic is that I went into this story wanting to understand, whether or not there was a significant decline in the number of teachers around the country.

And what I discovered instead is that there’s actually a significant projected decline in the number of public school students.


The national Center for Education, statistics projects at the number of public school students is going to decline every year for the rest of this decade.

And this is in many ways.

The opposite of a teacher shortage.

It’s like a student shortage and it’s kind of like a funny thing to say a student shortage but it’s a sharp and relatively severe decline in the number of students in public schools.


Help me, understand this what is happening what do we see?

Seeing in the data and why is it happening?

Well, there’s demographic shifts, just in the country at large.

And I think that that is the number one reason for get client in birth rates for specifically, is the number one reason for the decline, the projected, decline student enrollments, as opposed to parents systematically pulling their kids out of public school and putting them into homeschooling or private schooling.


There is there have been increases in both private schooling and homeschooling but I don’t believe that that is the driver of this decline Institute projected student enrollment in public schools really.

Primarily is the demographic shifts that we have in the country that is driving that Trend.


And what is it going to mean for teachers?

Well it’s it we has a sort of odd moment where it feels like we’re kind of crusting.

He has a lot of federal stimulus funds that districts are obligated to you.

Use and they’re trying to ramp up Staffing and services for children rightly to help them recover from the pandemic at the same time that’s her for stalling.


The kind of cuts the districts would be making in the absence of these Federal stimulus funds to respond to an decline in enrollment that so many districts already have given this year.

So I do think that the decline in enrollment is reducing the cute.


Of the teacher shortage that we have this year, use for some districts.

So its contents, this combination of districts having ramped up hiring starting last year, some districts, having declined enrollment and the lack of of teacher Exodus.

Those three things coming together.


I think our what is really helping to start to solve the teacher shortage that we have right now.

So in New York City K through 12 enrollment dropped by nearly 10%, And since covid officials are expecting 30,000 fewer, students, this fall then last fall and I made an error in the article.


I think that I wrote for the Atlantic I enlisting the reasons for that Decline and students mentioned a lot of parent motivations.

I said maybe parents are frustrated By curricula changes that they see as to political maybe some parents don’t like a new-school lottery system that’s been introduced in New York.


The other parents have decided that tutors in homeschooling are better options than keeping their kids in public.

We’ll set have all of this controversy swirling around them and what you’re sailing saying is yes.

All those things might be happening for some parents.

Some parents might be choosing to pull their kids out of public school for all of those reasons and more.


But the most important reason why Public School enrollment is projected to decline or is already declining that only in New York, but Nationwide is not about parent decisions or politics, it’s about sheer demographics.

It’s about the sheer fact of the number of Americans who were Were born, four, five, six, ten years ago.


And that as a result, those students simply cannot students who don’t exist.

Cannot, you know, matriculate into public schools.

Is that right?



Want to make sure that we understand that because I think a lot of people who have including me, I mean I’m just being myself who hear about sudden, declines in school, enrollments and fit that jigsaw puzzle piece in with everything that we’re hearing about the politicization of school are going to LEAP to the conclusion.


That of course, it’s about parent decisions and you’re saying is no.

Actually it’s a false narrative.

This is mostly about demographics, which I think is, is so interesting.


It’s there’s the frustrating truth is, it depends, right.

And some sort of micro areas of the United States, and Manhattan might be one of them where the incomes are, especially High household incomes.


Yes, the parents voting with their feet across different sectors of schooling.

Could be a more important issue.

I haven’t looked at the New York number so I can’t speak to what?

Ian are pulling their kids out of public and go and enrolling them in private, for example, but that’s plausible.


That is a plausible story.

That’s it could be driving.

New York City’s enrollment decline.

But I’m saying, when you step back and you took take that bird’s eye view of the US, this is not a mass movement of parents voting with their feet and D enrolling their child out of public school and instead and rolling their child in private, their had some have done that but that is not Main driver.


The, the main reason for is this projected, enrollment decline is like you said just demographics.

How would you describe the quality of national teacher data?

You’re laughing.

What’s I’m searching for Words?


Let’s see.

Poor terrible contradictory confusing incomplete.

We could go on lots of bad adjectives.

Why is it so bad?

Why is it so difficult?

V to just look at spreadsheets and describe reality in the education industry.


Well, it’s, I mean, the truth is, it is quite complicated, but it’s so there is no net National source that is responsible for collecting and Publishing these data.

In a timely fashion, the department of Ed does collect data, but it has several year time lag on their estimates.


So like they published of the Common Core of data.

They published counts of Staff.

But the The problem is there’s across States.

A particular problem is that there is no National shared, definitions of positions.


So it’s very hard to compare apples to apples of what weather a full-time teacher over here in math is the same category with the same category code ID.

We don’t have that yet as a, as a full-time math teacher over in state B.


So this That is it’s very like wonky answer here but it relates to the lack of shared terms and like people to don’t count vacancies the can’t same way, they don’t necessarily call count under qualification the same way and they don’t count specialty areas in the same way, so trying to get to harmonize.


Those is really a frustrating task moment.

Let me try to summarize where we are here.

The teacher shortage is clumpy spiky.

It is a local crisis rather than a national one.

And there are a combination of reasons why some districts might be seeing teacher shortages right now while others are not.


They include number one, some districts, ramped up hiring with stimulus money after the pandemic and they just can’t hire fast enough.

So right now there’s a lot of vacancies there.

Number two, there’s a lot of chronic issues long-standing issues that summer of 2022, headline, writers are treating a specific to this year.


So, All schools schools in high poverty areas.

Have historically struggled to hire sufficient teachers.

Substitute special ed teachers have been in short supply for a while.

These issues are long, long dating they’re not specific to this year.

And number three, in some districts, low pay is a major factor.


So for example, in rural Eastern Arizona, a teacher can earn much more money if she just crosses the border and teaches in western Texas instead.

So today, you have a teacher shortage in rural Arizona, in Eastern Arizona because all these teachers, The people who want to teach our just crossed the border and teaching in Texas.


And finally, looming over all of this, you have the fact that the data friggin sucks, the data on teacher turnover and vacancies across the country is just rotten, it’s terrible.

Here’s my question.

What should parents do with this information?

Parents should be looking to their own School Districts, website, information, and meet public meetings to understand the degree of shortage in there.


Specific District which is likely to be substantially different from whatever the national averages are.

So that’s the first thing it’s not all districts have shortages.

That’s the first point, some do so I’m not trying to wave this away and say this is not important, it is important and shortages do matter, but in some places it’s because there’s this combination of enrollment Decline and expansion of Staff.


Even where there It’s still a small set of shortages.

The if the amount of staff per student has actually been going up so I think parents can alleviate their some of their worry.

If they see that their district is mostly staffed up already, if especially if enrollment has declined, that means that the number of staff to student ratio is going up and so we’re seeing so weak.


They they don’t need to feel as panicked that there’s Sent staff in the building.

When in fact there may be more staff per student than there was pre-pandemic.

So that’s the first thing but I don’t want to act all Pollyanna about this because they’re like I said there are districts that do have real shortages and it does matter.


It is concerning to know that there’s three unfilled math.

Teacher positions in a given school and to know that they’re being, you know, filled by substitute teachers or somebody who’s under qualified for the position.

So, obviously, that’s something to continue to talk to school, principal and School, District leaders about, and there’s no simple solution for it.


So, that’s one thing and it’s I should say, no simple immediate term or short term solution for it.

But I think the biggest thing to have our eye on is what’s happening to this profession, long-term this moment this.


Going back to the morale problem.

How are we going to be able to fill this position?

With a set of qualified experienced teachers who stick around the stick around part is what I’m stressing here because I am concerned about the rates of turnover that depend pre-pandemic since then, it’s been there.


But if we’re has gone, the turnover rate has gone up somewhat and it creates this turn within the profession or instability and we want teachers to come into the profession and to gain years of experience.


That’s when we see that they their instructional quality tends to improve significantly in those first years.

So we wanted a place that’s good for teachers to work because that’s a place with it’s good for students to learn.

So as a parent which I am, I care a lot about this sort of long-term prognosis of the teaching profession, and I want to make it want to make schools a place, the are good.


For teachers to prosper, within and to stay heather shorts.

Thank you so much.

Thanks Derek.

I’m Jerry Thompson.

That was plain English.

Thanks very much to our producer, Devon man.

See, if you have any questions comments ideas for future episodes.

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