In the Classroom

Why people think there’s a teacher shortage in Indiana and why they’re probably wrong

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

Superintendent Tom Hunter grew worried this summer when he realized that fewer people were applying to become teachers in his rural district, Greensburg.

In one extreme instance, a high school teaching position that he said would have drawn 100 applications a few years ago yielded just three. Overall, the district was scrambling to fill jobs weeks after it would have finished hiring in the past.

“We had about 20 positions that we filled this summer, probably more than half of those in the last couple weeks before school started,” Hunter said. “That’s really, really uncharacteristic of what our normal hiring procedure would be.”

An hour or so north in the suburbs of Indianapolis, Scott Robison’s district, Zionsville, was encountering hiring challenges of its own. But Robison, who has been with the district for nearly a decade, said the difficulty seemed to arise from a new twist on a longstanding problem.

“The hiring cycle for prime teaching candidates who are in subjects that are traditionally hard to get seems to be moving earlier,” Robison said. “And so for those of us who start real early in August, there are many [districts] that start in July now, that may have some effect on the pool.”

The two stories illustrate what’s wrong with the narrative that there are too few teachers to fill Indiana’s classrooms this fall, an idea currently grabbing headlines and spurring officials into action. Instead, in Indiana, as in many other places, the problem isn’t the number of certified teachers but a mismatch between them and available jobs. And the situation isn’t as bad or out of the ordinary as recent media coverage has suggested.

The first alarm bells went off when Greensburg’s newspaper reported last month about a sharp decline in the number of new teachers earning first-time teaching licenses in 2014. The follow-up stories painted an even more dismal story, pointing to teachers’ dissatisfaction with the state’s education policy agenda and to declining enrollment in teaching programs. One even reported that the number of students pursuing teacher training had fallen to zero at some Indiana colleges.

Some of the stories were just wrong: The bottomed-out education school enrollment reflected changes in federal reporting rules, not actual enrollment patterns. Others overstated the shifts. And few looked at what researchers say is the real impediment to maintaining a strong supply of teachers — retaining existing educators, rather than minting new ones.

A closer look teacher licensure data from a federal report and the state department of education reveals that while the number of new teachers receiving first-time licenses has fallen in recent years, the actual decline has been small. New-teacher licenses have fallen by just 6 percent since 2008 or 18.5 percent since 2009, when young adults shut out of other work because of the recession might have had greater incentive to become teachers.

Teachers from the enormous baby boomer generation are also now between the ages of 49 and 68, prime retirement years, and they are increasingly leaving the classroom.

Taken together, those shifts could look like a big problem to someone judging Indiana’s teacher supply just by those numbers. But the state is adding teachers in other ways, including by more often issuing “emergency licenses” to educators making career changes. Plus, first-time teachers make up only one-fifth of the new teachers entering Indiana classrooms each year, as educators who have stepped away for a variety of reasons return.

Overall, the state’s teaching force has been stable for more than a decade, according to federal data.

Data source: National Center for Education Statistics
Credits: Sarah Glen & Shaina Cavazos/Chalkbeat

Plus, “a decline is not necessarily a shortage,” notes Dan Goldhaber, the director of the Center for Education Data and Research at the University of Washington, who calls the teacher shortage narrative “lore” that has rarely ever been true.

“I am skeptical that there is a national shortage,” he said. “It’s clear that some school systems have a hard time recruiting teachers. But it’s also the case that over the last couple decades, we’ve produced two to three times as many elementary education teachers as there are available slots every year.”

Indiana appears to face a similar dynamic. Changing federal reporting requirements for colleges make using teaching program data difficult at best and misleading at worst. But Indiana’s job bank, which school districts can, but do not have to, use to list open positions, contained about 600 jobs, and the state licensed more than 4,000 first-year teachers last year.

Schools across the 11 Marion County school districts that serve the city of Indianapolis don’t have large numbers of unfilled positions — and there’s evidence that they’re in better shape than in the recent past.

With more than 2,000 teaching jobs, for example, IPS had just 44 unfilled jobs as of Aug. 17, and only 25 of those are classroom teachers, according to district spokeswoman Kristin Cutler. Just before the school year started, the district had 69 open teaching jobs, compared to 117 at the same time last year.

The rest of the county’s school districts posted only 27 jobs for full-time, non-temporary classroom teaching positions as of last week. The two wealthiest Marion County districts, Franklin Township and Beech Grove, had just one opening for a teacher between them.

So how to explain the experience of superintendents such as Hunter, who say they can’t easily find qualified teachers to fill their open jobs?

“You can’t say whether it is a supply or demand issue across the board,” Goldhaber said. “It really varies depending on the school and the kind of teacher that we are looking for.”

Indeed, hiring seems to be toughest for schools in areas of Indiana that some teachers view as less desirable to work in, such as isolated rural communities and high-poverty urban neighborhoods. Jobs that require more schooling or specialized skills, such as science, math and special education teaching jobs, are also harder to fill — but that’s nothing new.

“Even ten years ago when I first came to Zionsville it was difficult to hire certain areas,” Robison said. “Science, math and special education have always been more difficult than other areas.”

In IPS, most of the open elementary school positions are at schools rated a D or F by the state. At the high school level, the jobs are spread between magnet and neighborhood schools, but usually in career tech and positions that require knowledge of science, math, or foreign language.

Carol Hofer, a teacher at Fox Hill Elementary School, works with English learners in a small group lesson. Teachers with special skills such as an English learner certification are harder for district's to recruit.
PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Carol Hofer, a teacher at Fox Hill Elementary School, works with English learners in a small group lesson. Teachers with special skills such as an English learner certification are harder for districts to recruit.

The persistent challenge of filling jobs in those areas is one reason that districts would be smart to find ways to keep the educators they have, said Richard Ingersoll, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania who studies teacher workforce trends.

“It’s sort of foolish,” Ingersoll said. “Here you have these people who are really good, and the state can’t make any efforts to retain them. Instead, they recruit newbies.”

Some states and districts have tried to use pay incentives to keep qualified teachers in place. That idea hasn’t been on the table in Indiana, where pay is relatively low and Indianapolis teachers just won their first raise in five years. But in addition to being expensive, those incentives might not tackle the issues that Ingersoll says most frequently drive teachers to leave their classrooms. He has found that work conditions are the most important consideration for teachers who are deciding whether to stay in the profession.

In Indiana, rapidly changing expectations for educators have unsettled working conditions for teachers in recent years. Political battles over education policy put schools under scrutiny and induced a rapid transition to tougher academic standards — and consequences for not meeting them.

That shift caused Ashley Maloff, a 25-year-old academic advisor at Purdue University, to abandon her plans to become a special education teacher. As a student teacher, she bristled at the limits placed on her in the classroom.

“It just became less fun and more like I was constantly checking myself, not knowing if you were going to have a job the next year if your kids don’t pass the test,” Maloff said. “In special education, that’s huge because most kids aren’t reading or writing at grade level.”

Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, believes fewer teachers would leave the profession if they felt like they had support from legislators and other state leaders.

“There really is a climate that’s been created, and we have to look at the climate and figure out how to fix it,” Meredith said. “Who cares what the data says because when you have administrators who don’t have applicants before the first day of school, there’s a shortage, end of story.”

Alarmed by the specter of a teacher shortage, Indiana State Board of Education member Gordon Hendry said his plan to offer top students who choose to study education four years of free college tuition if they commit to teaching at least four years in Indiana schools will address problems of both recruiting and retaining good teachers.

A teacher helps a student during classroom instruction at McClelland Elementary School. Colleges produce two to three times as many elementary school teachers as there are open jobs for them each year.
PHOTO: Allen Underwood, Courtesy of Wayne Township Schools
A teacher helps a student during classroom instruction at McClelland Elementary School. Colleges produce two to three times as many elementary school teachers as there are open jobs for them each year, one researcher said.

Whether the $4.5 million proposal will gain traction remains to be seen. Hendry said he expects lawmakers to discuss it at a special committee meeting next month.

Legislators also took a pass earlier this year when two bills went nowhere that were designed to offer extra pay to teachers who complete National Board Certification, a rigorous evaluation of how a teacher teaches, in exchange for agreeing to mentor others.

Indiana’s legislative and education leaders might ultimately be trying to solve the wrong problem if they decide to adopt a plan that is about recruitment rather than one that rewards long-standing teachers and improves working conditions.

“Almost every president since Eisenhower has given a speech on teacher shortage … we’ve spent umpteen dollars trying to fix this over the last half-century,” Ingersoll said. “But this is the wrong diagnosis and the wrong prescription … It’s not an under-supply, it’s too much turnover.”

How I Teach

From bikes to blue hair: how one Denver kindergarten teacher shares his passion with students

Andres Pazo, a kindergarten teacher at Denver's Maxwell Elementary, with his class.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Andres Pazo, a kindergarten teacher in an ESL Spanish class at Denver’s Maxwell Elementary School, doesn’t do things halfway. Before Denver Broncos home games, he’ll come to school with his face and hair painted orange and navy. For holidays or school book fairs, he wears full themed costumes. A passionate cyclist, he dresses in professional cycling gear to teach bike safety to children.

Pazo, who colleagues say has a smile for everyone he meets, received one of Denver Public Schools’ four Leadership Lamp awards last summer.

He talked with Chalkbeat about the teachers who inspired him to enter the field, why he uses secret codes to get his students’ attention, and how he gets to know students before school starts.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
I’m from Caracas, Venezuela, and decided to become a teacher during my last year in my country. For all the universities that I applied to, I put elementary education as my first choice, and I got accepted.

During high school, I had some teachers that impacted my life — I think because they taught with their hearts and reached mine. Hector Zamora was my geography teacher in college. He didn’t care about scores. He just wanted us to know, love, and feel geography. Also, I can add Evelia Mujica, my eighth grade biology teacher. She was super-strict and funny, but in the end, I think she just wanted us to love and really know about biology. These two still inspire me every single day to be a good teacher.

What does your classroom look like?
My classroom is a room where my students feel safe and loved, and where they try hard all year long. It’s also messy, and you can see many masks and hats that I use to engage my students in lessons, and, of course, their projects throughout the year.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my _____. Why?
Motivation. It is what keeps me thinking of activities, projects, lessons, and ideas so my students enjoy anything that they need to learn.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
My favorite lesson to teach is a writing unit at the end of the year, called “All About.” I always bring in things that I love — like my bikes — and write about them. I let students write about any small moment: about something that they love, the food their parents make, a family trip, a family visiting them, a good or sad day … anything they would like to share. They usually bring in their favorite toys.

The students’ writing is amazing because they apply everything they’ve been learning. They try so hard to write everything about their toys. You can hear them sharing their stories with others, and their pictures are incredible. Writing is a good indicator of how much they have grown during the school year.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
I sit with him or her after the lesson is taught and work on the skill that needs to be mastered.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
I use a lot of “secret codes” with my students. For example, when I say “mustache code,” they put a finger across their upper lips. They can be working, reading, or playing, and when I say it, I have 100 percent of students’ attention right away.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
It starts before the first day of class. I usually write letters to them or do home visits. I take the first two weeks of school to get to know them and what they like to do. I take time to welcome them so they can feel safe and confident in the classroom.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
When I was working at Denver Center for International Studies at Ford, we started a home visiting program. We first thought parents didn’t have time for us or that they didn’t want to take the time. But, once we started making the calls and found that parents wanted us to come, we understood that parents didn’t know about the program. After that, some parents became more involved in their kids’ education and with the school.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
A lot of mountain bike reviews about bicycles, parts, or trails to ride.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
Never change my personality.

First Person

This Betsy DeVos-inspired Twitter thread recounts the ups and downs (but mostly ups) of one school’s Common Core shift

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Noah Mackert with one of his former students in 2015.

When U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos proclaimed in a major speech Tuesday that “Common Core is a disaster” and “dead” at the federal education department, something stirred in Noah Mackert.

Mackert, a former New York City educator now living in Massachusetts, recalled that the standards had prompted anything but a disaster at his school after New York rolled them out in 2011. So he took to Twitter to share the story of what it was like when Democracy Prep, the charter network where he worked and now consults, made the transition.

“I know that many Americans on the right and the left have negative associations with the phrase ‘Common Core,’ even if they’ve never seen the standards,” Mackert told Chalkbeat. (He sits on our Reader Advisory Board.) “I have been carrying around quite an alternative narrative about the Common Core, and I felt moved to share it.”

In 17 tweets, Mackert describes how teachers at his school overhauled their assignments to fulfill the standards’ demand that students be able to identify, analyze, and cite evidence from their reading. After students bombed the first round of exams tied to the standards despite those efforts, he writes, teachers made their own tests even more challenging as well. More importantly, he says, they started putting ideas, not isolated reading or math skills, front and center in their lessons.

“In a real way, the Common Core tests were so difficult that they forced us to stop trying to prepare for them so directly,” Mackert writes. “It was terrifying, at first. Then liberating.”

Despite DeVos’s proclamation, the Common Core is still alive and well in many states, even if its name has changed. Mackert said that reality had inspired him, as well.

“I wanted to show that even if the term ‘common core’ is never used again, much of the standards themselves remain, especially in NY where the standards were only lightly revised and rebranded,” he told Chalkbeat.

You can read his whole thread below.