Teacher shortages: Where recruitment and retention goals intersect

On Board Online • September 18, 2017

By Paul Heiser
Senior Research Analyst

If you want to hear a tale of woe, ask any rural superintendent if he or she has had any difficulty filling open teaching positions lately.

"I could write a volume about hiring in the Adirondacks!" said Leslie Ford, superintendent in the 500-student Northville school district in Fulton County. "I have never encountered such difficulty! It is hard to attract teachers - even beginners - to a rural district where the pay scale does not attract you through to retirement. We have been trying to hire a technology teacher for two years. We currently have an opening for FACS (Family and Consumer Sciences) that we reopened due to no certified applicants. Math and science are also very difficult."

The 900-student Letchworth school district in Wyoming County has been having the same problem.

"Over the past five years, applicants have been dwindling in all certification areas - even in areas for which we've had 50 to 100 applications in the past, such as elementary education," said Julie Reed, who retired in June as superintendent. "Not only are there fewer and fewer applicants, the applicants' qualifications have declined as well."

It's a statewide problem, and more than rural districts are affected. A NYSSBA report released in May 2017 concluded that teacher shortages in New York are particularly acute in science, special education, foreign languages, mathematics, and bilingual education and English instruction for students whose primary language is not English.

Nearly six in 10 superintendents told NYSSBA in a February survey that they had difficulty finding qualified teachers in one or more science specialties, particularly physics, chemistry and earth science. The survey was sent to 630 superintendents and received 275 responses - a return rate of 44 percent.

Factors related to teacher shortages


Kate Walsh, the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, says teacher shortages are a local phenomenon and have been coped with for decades. She says it's obvious why schools struggle to find teachers in certain subjects, particularly the sciences: people with degrees in those fields can earn more in other jobs. Also, some places to live are considered more desirable than others.

"One answer to the problem is to pay such teachers more than others, but most districts continue to reject that solution because it is untenable with unions," she said. "We also could ramp up the availability of part-time positions for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) teachers, but - again - few schools and states embrace this option because unions worry that districts will seek to replace full-time employees and their costly benefits with part-timers."

Teacher preparation programs churn out graduates in elementary education, but those jobs have been hard to get. In 2012-13, New York had a supply of 6,119 new elementary teachers but only 2,470 openings.

As part of the TeachNY initiative, State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher have met with representatives of higher education, teachers and others to create new teacher and leader preparation policy, State Education Department spokesman Jonathan Burman told On Board.

"A number of recommended actions have emerged from these conversations, including establishing a web portal for individuals considering a career in teaching that will guide them to an appropriate certification pathway and to schools and districts that are seeking candidates with their skills. Another recommendation was for the state to conduct extensive research to help determine which factors most impact teacher supply and demand in New York," he said. "We know that there are many factors that make it difficult for schools to recruit and retain high quality teachers, particularly in certain subjects."


While having an adequate pool of teachers from which to staff classrooms is important, retaining current teachers is equally important.

"Retaining excellent teachers should be just as important to school districts as recruiting them," said Carl Korn, chief press officer for New York State United Teachers. "Attracting good teachers - and keeping them - goes together. It's one strategy for addressing the looming teacher shortage that we'd like to see become more of a priority."

A national study by The Learning Policy Institute (LPI) found that 90 percent of open teaching positions are created by teachers who leave the profession, two-thirds of which are due to teachers leaving for reasons other than retirement, such as dissatisfaction with the profession. It said that if the national attrition rate of about 8 percent annually were cut in half, the national teacher shortage problem would be eradicated. (In New York, the annual teacher turnover rate in the 2015-16 school year was 11 percent for all teachers and 21 percent for teachers with fewer than five years of experience, according to data from the State Education Department.)

The LPI study cited a number of reasons for teachers leaving their schools or the profession altogether. The most frequently cited reasons were dissatisfaction with testing and accountability pressures (listed by 25 percent of those who left the profession); lack of administrative support; dissatisfaction with the teaching career, including lack of opportunities for advancement; and dissatisfaction with working conditions. These kinds of dissatisfactions were noted by 55 percent of those who left the profession and 66 percent of those who left their school to go to another school.

The president and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute has a familiar name: Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford professor who serves as a consultant to the State Education Department. She told On Board that problems of teacher shortages and retention can both be addressed with a scholarship program.

"States that have fewer shortages provide things such as service scholarships in which they pay tuition for students who agree to go into teacher-scarcity areas such as math, science, special education and bilingual education, and agree to teach in state in those subject areas for a minimum of 3-5 years," she said. "Such incentives reduce debt load in a profession in which salaries are lower than in other fields, and there are not only higher entry rates in places that have implemented this, but higher retention rates as well."

Also, some would-be teachers don't get enough exposure to the classroom, she said. She noted that Bank Street College provides a full year of student teaching, but there are other teaching programs in New York that provide only 12-15 weeks. She said New York has a high ratio of unprepared teachers compared with other states, and they are disproportionately found in high-minority schools.

Reed, the former Letchworth superintendent, says high teacher turnover means that some districts end up cannibalizing others. "Teacher turnover certainly plays a role," she told On Board. "As the pool of certified candidates dwindles, districts begin increasing their willingness to meet the salary demands of teachers who are already employed in other districts. This then leaves a void in another district."

Editor's Note: You can read the NYSSBA report, "Teacher Shortage? What Teacher Shortage?" on NYSSBA's website at http://www.nyssba.org/news/reports . Also, Paul Heiser will be presenting a workshop on teacher shortages at NYSSBA's Annual Convention & Education Expo on Oct. 12 at 1 p.m.

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