Many Utah school districts have been grappling with a shortage of teachers in specific disciplines — particularly math, science, and special education. No shortage of teachers exists for some disciplines and there is an overabundance of teachers for others. Shortages vary by locality, but seem to be quite general for math, science, and special education.
When we look at this problem from an economist’s viewpoint, it is really quite simple. The demand for these positions exceeds the supply of qualified individuals to fill the positions. When demand exceeds supply of any commodity, the cost of the commodity necessarily increases. Therefore, if we want to fill these positions, we need to be willing to pay the going rate — the rate demanded by the market.
This presents a sticky problem for school districts and educator unions. The idea that a teacher of one subject is inherently more valuable than a teacher of another subject runs somewhat counter to basic unionization philosophy. It is also a difficult job to balance compensation with demand. What do you do when demand changes? It causes morale problems when the new person gets paid more than a seasoned person or when a seasoned teacher is grandfathered in under high demand rules when demand has dropped. Private business deals with this kind of thing all of the time, but government has a very poor track record of effectively managing it.
Now let’s look at the matter from a sociologist’s point of view. There are obviously some underlying cultural/sociological reasons that insufficient numbers of people pursue certain types of teaching positions. Perhaps these reasons exceed the value of compensation. When we make career choices, our cost-benefit analysis always includes factors beyond pay (and benefits). Job satisfaction, prestige, the nature of human interactions on the job, our personality type, and many other factors come into play.
The legislature recently considered ways to pay more for high demand teaching jobs. I suspect, however, that unless we address the sociological aspects of the issue, we will still fail to achieve an equitable resolution.
One solution I constantly hear bandied about is that we should get professionals from the community to take turns stepping in and teaching high demand positions. We have numerous citizens (engineers, scientists, etc.) that use the principles needed to be taught in their daily jobs. Or what about using retired professionals who have the needed skills?
While this sounds like a wonderful solution, we need to realize that it ignores these two realities: 1) that teaching is itself a profession, and 2) that teaching children requires certain skills. Knowledge of a skill does not automatically make one proficient at teaching that skill. Ability to teach a skill to adults does not necessarily mean that one is capable of doing a good job of teaching that skill to children. Probably every adult has experienced as a child (or as a parent) at least one teacher that was simply not cut out for the teaching profession or that was lousy at teaching children.
Bringing in qualified professionals or retired professionals to teach our children is a great idea — providing we make sure they get the skills necessary to make them good teaching professionals as well. It’s a whole new career that requires additional skills.
There are ways to address the shortage of teachers for high demand positions. Getting to a truly effective solution requires understanding and addressing all of the factors involved, including social, economic, and skill issues.