California Teachers Association

Fact Check: Reforms Favored by John King Don't Cause Teacher Shortages

When President Barack Obama tapped former New York Education Commissioner John King to replace Arne Duncan as secretary of education, teachers union officials and their allies reacted with outrage. In a statement, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten reiterated her long-standing claim that alternative schools (charters), alternative recruiting (Teach for America) and accountability (standards and tests) create “teacher demoralization and the teacher shortage” by implicitly insulting the old way of doing things. Weingarten’s point builds upon similar talking points from prolific education writer Diane Ravitch, the founder of the militant Badass Teachers Association Mark Naison and many others. Thus, by advancing such reforms in New York, King created a teacher shortage. Except the facts say the exact opposite.

Did You Even Try?

Jon Stewart used to have a segment on The Daily Show called “Did You Even Try to Research This?” It is a simple exercise to compare teacher shortages in New York State versus those of a state that accepted the unions’ position and rejected New York’s (and Obama’s) choice-and-accountability approach. For a strongly anti-reform state, let’s consider California, where I attended public K-12 schools and where my mom taught for 35 years. Her former union, for which she sometimes served as a representative, is the California Teachers Association (CTA). The CTA is the strongest lobby in Sacramento and one of the strongest state-level lobbies in America. Through their influence, California has led the most anti-reform policies in the country related to parent choice and teacher accountability. If the union leaders and their allies were correct, New York would face shortages and California would not. In fact, the opposite is true. New York faces a surfeit of teachers, allowing schools to select from the very best candidates. As underscored by  Chalkbeat New York magazine, “New York’s excess supply gives principals the chance to be selective when reviewing resumes.” California, by contrast, saw the nation’s worst declines in teacher prep enrollment, dropping to 53 percent from 2008-2013. As a result, schools in the Golden State are scrambling to find teachers.

A Little Low on Morale

No one can deny that teaching in America is difficult and controversial, and has been so for many generations. The substantive and testable question is whether Obama-era reforms have made shortages and morale worse. Although a vocal minority of educators clearly believe this, overwhelming evidence suggests those beliefs are false in the aggregate. For starters, consider the claim that morale is plummeting. In 2014, left-of-center think tank the Center for American Progress published a study of surveys by the National Center for Education Data and Statistics. Those surveys showed that “overwhelming percentages” of teachers, near 90 percent, were satisfied with their jobs and felt “a great deal of autonomy.” In 2013, the Pew Research Center released polling results showing sky-high levels of public esteem for teachers. Also in 2013, Andy Rotherham analyzed the Metlife annual survey of American teachers, and concluded not only that morale was high, but also that the union leaders’ claim to the contrary came from blunt methodological error. Data on this is consistent, and they rebut the union officials’ allegation that reforms represent a “war on teachers.”

The Wrong Leap

The overall false-claim framework appears to have grown out of a truth: Nationally, applications to teaching programs, including alternative programs like Teach For America, have declined about 30 percent since 2010. For many, such a steep decline intuitively suggests that we’re facing a national shortage. This intuitive leap, however, is wrong. Applications to teaching programs are an important leading indicator of the future size of the teaching workforce, much like the flow of a river is a leading indicator of the future level of a lake. That said, a river can wax and wane with rainfall, while the lake’s water level moves only slowly. Similarly, applications to teacher prep programs rise and fall, while the overall teacher workforce stays relatively flat. The short-term fluctuations in teacher applications depend on the cycles of the economy. Teaching is hard. Anyone who can teach well—lead a classroom, command and translate complex subjects, collaborate with colleagues and engage parents—can also get other great jobs in a booming economy. This is especially true for teachers in math and science, or who have other high-demand professional credentials. Thus, applications go down when the economy is booming, and up when the economy is struggling. The 2008-2010 recession caused a surge in applications, and the recovery since then has caused applications to decline. This is normal, and only becomes an issue if there is an absolute decline in the number of teachers.

When It All Falls Down

That is where the “national teacher shortage” idea falls apart. A simple numerical analysis shows that our teaching workforce shrank only slightly after its 2008 peak, and will hit historic highs within three years. As Kate Walsh of the National Center on Teacher Quality said earlier this year, “We are preparing twice the number of teachers than we actually need.” And even the idea of a “national” teacher labor pool is misleading, as National Public Radio explained:
The teacher employment picture is, of course, local and regional. One part of a state may have too many elementary teachers, while another may have too few. And the gaps vary by specialty—with many places facing serious shortages in areas including science, math and special education.
In other words, as even adamant union defenders admit, we face surfeits in some areas but shortages in others. These facts are devastating for the unions’ claim that King and Obama are engaged in some sort of “war on teachers.” Why would charter schools and Teach For America demoralize math teachers, but not music teachers? Why would tests demoralize teachers in rural areas, but not in suburbs? Facts should matter in discussing education policy. It’s time to retire the idea that education reform harms teachers, their morale or their recruiting and retention. The available evidence suggests the opposite.  
Dmitri Mehlhorn is a parent and school volunteer, as well as a Democratic donor and activist.
Dmitri Mehlhorn
Dmitri Mehlhorn is a parent and school volunteer, as well as a Democratic donor and activist. He is a member of several boards, including that of StudentsFirst and several early stage companies, and he was a co-founder of Hope Street Group. He has earned degrees in political science, education policy and law from Stanford, Harvard, and Yale, respectively.

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