Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Dealing With Teacher Shortages

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.


y-intercept said...

I wanted to be a math teacher. Unfortunately, I was kicked out of the Education Department at the Unviersity of Utah because I was able to see value in both Conservative and Liberal arguments.

I love logic and math. If they taught grammar in the schools I attended, I think would have liked that subject as well.

Grammar, math, logic and science are all part of that scholastic tradition that progressives want to transcend.

What is going on in the education department of most institutes of higher learning is quite sad. All of the people who know math, logic and engineering are routinely cast aside.

The professors at the U explained their methodology. The education department serves as the gatekeeper for the public education system. The basic hope is that if the left has absolute control over education, they will be able to use it as a tool for transforming society into the promised socialist utopia.

In the same quarter the education department flunked me, they also flunked an engineer and an accountant who wanted to give back to the community by teaching. I can still remember the conversation with the engineer. He approached me after he learned of my demise and said: "Do you notice how they are getting rid of all the conservatives?"

I thought the guy was off his rocker as I considered myself a liberal. I am very much the libertarian. The problem, of course, is that, once a person starts applying logic to modern progressive thought, they are likely become a conservative.

Charles D said...

There are some other downward pressures on teach salaries besides union reluctance to accept pay differences based on subject taught. There are also taxpayers unwilling to accept higher property or sales taxes. Certainly unions need to recognize that a one-pay-fits-all policy is impractical and counterproductive, but governments need to realize that regressive property and sales taxes work against educational improvement.

I do like the idea of getting seasoned professionals in the classroom where appropriate, but they will certainly cost even more since they will be giving up higher paid, more prestigious jobs. As you point out, we need to address the underlying cultural/sociological factors that impact the teaching profession. It seems to me the diminished prestige of teaching has several causes: low salaries and little chance for advancement, the disciplinary problems in many schools, and the lack of adequate facilities and supplies in many schools.

In addition, our culture has de-emphasized education, even belittling the pursuit of knowledge, and placing a strong priority on making money. The link between hard work and discipline and economic reward has been broken. We don't achieve by learning and working, we achieve by manipulating and competing.

I have disagreed with Y-Intercept on his left-bashing before, so I won't add it here. He does have a point that schools of Education are often more of a hindrance than a help. I attribute that to a desire to "professionalize" teaching and thus insure their own survival rather than any political motivation.

Frank Staheli said...

There is a very similar problem in some occupational specialties in the military. People can make a ton more money doing the same thing in the private sector, so why would they want to do it in the military?

y-intercept said...

I bash Conservatives when they give political litmus tests. Political litmus tests invariably filter out the people who are good at thinking through problems in favor of political drones.

BTW, math and logic are easier to teach than most subjects. This is especially true in the computer age. Numbers are numbers and they pretty much always add up to the same thing.

Teaching science is largely a matter of having good equipment. Science is based on the observation of things; so you can't really learn it from a book. Once you have the right equipment, teaching science becomes easy as well.

Try teaching a Spanish class. It is like teaching a foreign language! English is a tough subject, especially when you consider the number of words and weird spelling rules.

A trigonometry class, on the other hand, is a simple matter of showing people how angles and circles work. Since angles and circles are fun things, it is easy to teach.

If you know a few things about the nature of space, basic Calculus is also easy to master.

Since math is easy to teach, then there must be something else going on that is preventing teachers from becoming good math teachers.

Charles D said...

There is a little problem called economics involved here. If you have enough education in math to teach it at the secondary level, you can get a heck of lot better job in private industry. Ditto with science. Of course if you were unfortunate enough to major in the liberal arts (P.S. that means you want to Conserve our heritage), then you are probably going to find teaching one of your better options upon graduation.

y-intercept said...

Sadly, there aren't many jobs in pure math outside the academic community. Many sciences such as geology and physics also seem to produce more grads than jobs. Education is the one career with stability and long vacations that allow people to continue the pursuit of their interests.

There is something else that is driving mathematicians and sciencists from education.

BTW, DL, I loved the little snipe about education being the choice of people wanting to Conserve Culture. The comment cuts two ways. Education is the choice career for activists wanting to radicalize culture.

When I was in school, the left was making overt efforts to gain hegemony in education through the education schools. This effort ended up driving a large number of the people who would make good math and science teachers out of education.

A right wing backlash, of course, has the same effect. Politicalization of the classroom drives the people who want to teach for the love of learning out of the schools. It then leaves a less skilled, politically motivated group in its wake.

I agree that there are economic factors involved. However, political factors have a way of trumping economic concerns.