August 7, 2015

Teacher Shortage? Blame the Economy

By Bellwether

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*Cross posted at the blog

What’s causing teacher shortages across the country? Although it might be fun to blame your least favorite thing in education–the Common Core, say, or teacher evaluations or millennials–new research suggests the economy is the primary driver in the supply of new teachers (h/t InsideHigherEd).

The new paper looks at the college majors of students who turned age 20 between 1960 and 2011. Then, it linked the students’ decisions with data on macroeconomic trends to examine how business cycles affect student choices. Of the 38 majors included in the study, education was the biggest loser. When recessions hit, both men and women were less likely to want to become teachers and instead turned to fields like accounting and engineering. In number terms, the researchers estimate that, “each percentage point increase in the unemployment rate…decreases the share of women choosing Early and Elementary Education by a little more than 6 percent.” (For men it was even higher.)

To put that in context, the national unemployment rate rose from 4.4 percent in May 2007 to 10.0 percent in October 2009. Using the paper’s estimates, that would imply the recent recession caused a decline in female enrollment in elementary education of 33.6 percent (the 5.6 percentage point change in the unemployment rate multiplied by the 6 percent figure above).

A 34 percent decline due purely to economic conditions may sound high at first blush, but it would help explain much of what we’re seeing out in the field. For example, it would explain most but not all of the decline in program completers that we documented in our recent paper on California’s teacher pipeline. State-by-state changes in economic conditions may also help explain why some, but not all, states are experiencing declining interest in teacher preparation programs. (And all of these figures put Teach for America’s much-publicized 10 percent decline in perspective. So far, TFA has weathered the decline better than other preparation programs.)

While the declines are not good news for schools–it means they’re competing for a smaller number of candidates–a recent paper found that teachers hired during the recent recession tended to be stronger than those hired during better economic times.

What’s ironic about all current attention to teacher shortages is that teacher shortages are the exact thing that will lead to the next boomlet in teacher prep. The media will cover the shortages, districts will raise their wages to attract workers, and we’ll start this cyle all over again. And then the next recession will hit and we’ll be back to hearing about teachers who can’t find teaching jobs. And so on, and on…

–Chad Aldeman

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