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.”

Ending the churn

A splintered system and lack of teachers have created instability for Detroit schools. Now, leaders are craving solutions.

Social studies teacher Aaron Ames learned that his former school took summer paychecks back from teachers who quit in August when money disappeared from his bank account.

Like many school leaders in Detroit, Danielle Robinson spent the month of August doggedly searching for teachers.

Robinson is the top Detroit official for Phalen Leadership Academies, a nonprofit charter school network that took over three Detroit schools from another manager in July.

By late August, with the start of school just days away, Phalen still needed 34 teachers to staff Murphy, Stewart and Trix elementary schools.

And there wasn’t much time.

“We did $5,000 retention bonuses,” Robinson said. “We did  $5,000 signing bonuses. We did $1,000 referral bonuses … We needed to make sure we had enough teachers because that’s a huge thing for students when they come back — a permanent teacher in the classroom. ”

Phalen’s challenge was extreme — a problem exacerbated by management changes and by the dissolution of the state-run recovery district that had been overseeing the three schools. They’re now overseen by a Detroit district unsure of its plans for charters.

But the schools’ scramble for teachers is hardly unusual in a city where liberal school choice laws, a decentralized school system and a shrinking pool of available teachers have so destabilized the teacher labor force that many school leaders say they’re constantly looking for new educators to hire.

“I’ve never seen anything quite like this in my career,” said Mark Ornstein who heads the seven-campus University Prep charter school network in Detroit. “There’s just not enough people to fill the number of vacancies …. We’re all seeing more and more teachers leaving in the middle of the year.”

So many schools are looking for teachers — in August, September and throughout the year — that educators can wait for bonuses and enticements to grow before accepting an offer. And every time a teacher takes an offer and leaves, that creates a vacancy likely to be filled by a teacher from another school. That other school then has a vacancy to fill.

As teachers leave, students suffer. Research shows that teachers hired during or just before the school year are less effective than those who’ve had more time to prepare and to properly learn their school’s curriculum.

Experts say the teacher churn is driven in part by the fierce competition between schools in Detroit that has intensified as charter schools have expanded — they now comprise nearly half of the city’s schools — and as more suburban schools actively recruit city kids. Parents often enroll in multiple schools while weighing their options and schools are left to guess how many students they’ll have and how many teachers they’ll need.

“It’s another consequence of this hyper-competition that has been created by our charter school programs and laws here in Michigan and it’s really working to the detriment of everybody involved,” said Mike Addonizio, a professor of education policy at Wayne State University.

“The schools are competing for students,” he said. “The students will dictate the revenues and that dictates their budget and therefore their ability to hire staff … And if a school is plagued with high teacher turnover, that makes it difficult for students. Outcomes won’t be good and as that information becomes public, those schools don’t do well in school choice decisions and enrollment will drop.”

Some Detroit schools are now pushing back on teachers who quit mid-year by putting financial penalties into teachers’ contracts that discourage them from leaving, but advocates say real solutions will require major changes.

Among them: improving conditions in schools so that teachers want to stay and creating partnerships between district and charter schools to minimize instability.

“In other states, schools set their budgets and know their enrollment so much further ahead that they can come to a [spring] job fair and know exactly who they need to hire,” said Karey Henderson, the director of the Metro Detroit Charter Center who was the assistant superintendent of a 10-school Michigan charter network called Global Educational Excellence.

In Michigan, enrollment “doesn’t really get fleshed out often until Count Day [in October],” Henderson said. “Teachers are nervous and they’re applying around …. We would be trying to train new teachers but then a public school would get more kids and need more teachers and our teachers would get a call … We would have to start out the year with long-term subs in the classroom.”

Then, if parents see a substitute in the classroom, they might move their child to another school — and the churn continues.

Much of the attention this year has focused on the difficulties facing Detroit’s main school district as it works to fill scores of vacancies  in its 106 schools, but the problem is playing out somewhat differently in charter schools where teachers tend to be younger and are more likely to change jobs — or to the leave the profession entirely — from one year to the next.

A recent report from the state education department found that charter school teachers are twice as likely to leave their jobs compared to teachers in traditional public schools. The same report found a higher teacher turnover in Michigan as compared to the national average and put the price tag of replacing a teacher at nearly $10,000.

PHOTO: Michigan Department of Education
A recent Michigan Department of Education report shows that Michigan teachers — especially those who work for charter schools — are more likely to leave their jobs than their peers across the country.

Another state report shows the problem for all schools could get even worse in coming years as the number of people applying for teacher certifications drops precipitously — much faster than the number of students who need a teacher.

School leaders say they’re taking steps to attract more teachers. Detroit school  superintendent Nikolai Vitti says he’s working to build a “teacher pipeline” that would encourage district graduates to go into education, do their training in Detroit and work here when they graduate.

Charter school leaders say they’re making similar efforts.

Grand Valley State University now provides scholarships to education students who do their training in Detroit charter schools overseen by Grand Valley, said Rob Kimball, who heads the university’s charter school office.  

Leaders from Grand Valley charter schools have also been meeting with their counterparts from schools overseen by Central Michigan University to discuss a “coordinated talent strategy,” Kimball said.

“There’s definitely an interest in coming up with a shared solution,” Kimball said. “We need to design a solution to really stabilize the marketplace for teacher talent and to develop a pipeline [for future teachers].”

PHOTO: Michigan Department of Education
A recent report from the Michigan Department of Education warns that number of new teacher certifications is dropping much faster than the number of students in the state.

In the absence of a citywide solution, individual schools are doing whatever they can to fill classrooms.

In the case of the Phalen Leadership Academies, Robinson, the top official, said her schools  applied for emergency certifications to put some people without teaching credentials into classrooms. The new teachers will get extra coaching to help them succeed, Robinson said, but it was a tough choice for an Indiana-based network that prides itself on hiring only highly qualified staff.

“None of our other schools in our network use emergency permits,” Robinson said.

Some charter schools have created bonus systems that require teachers to return for the next school year in order to collect last year’s bonus.

Others — including the University Prep schools — have contracts that don’t allow teachers to get their full summer pay unless they return for the new school year.

Social studies teacher Aaron Ames said he learned that the hard way when he resigned his job at the University Prep Academy Middle School on Aug. 18 to take a position with a different school.

Suddenly, he said, his last paycheck disappeared from his bank account.

“I looked at my bank account one day and saw a negative $900,” Ames said.

University Prep had paid him on Aug. 15 but took the money back when he quit three days later.

Ornstein said his teachers’ contracts begin on Aug. 1. If they resign before teacher training begins on Aug. 21, it means they didn’t do any work and shouldn’t have been paid.

Ames was furious. “It kind of make me want to quit teaching,” he said. “They should find a way to keep teachers honestly instead of trying to punish us for leaving.”

Contract provisions that seem designed to penalize departures are becoming increasingly common in Detroit charter schools, teachers union leaders say.

“At one charter school, the teachers call it the ‘death tax,’” said Nate Walker, an organizer and policy analyst with the Michigan chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, which represents teachers in the main Detroit district and in a handful of city charter schools. “They’re loading up penalties on teachers to try to deter them from leaving so close to the beginning of the school year … but that’s not going to fix the problem because the labor market in Detroit is destabilized and decentralized.”

Walker called for schools to give teachers contracts earlier in the year and to coordinate with each other so that teachers can know they’ll have income and health insurance over the summer even if they plan to change jobs in September.

The current structure encourages teachers to hold on to last year’s job until the insurance for next year’s job kicks in in August or September, Walker said.

“This is a lot easier said than done because of the multi-operator system that we have right now, but if employers were to make the commitment that any time they’ve given someone an offer to work in the fall, they’re also willing to turn on insurance for that employee, that could solve at least part of the problem,” Walker said.

The only way to fix the rest of the problem, Addonizio said, is to address the reasons that teachers leave in the first place.  

“The best thing that a school or a school district can do to combat the teacher turnover problem is to improve working conditions in the school,” Addonizio said. “For new teachers, their compensation might mean something, but more than anything, they want some mentoring, assistance from veteran teachers. They want some help.”

Henderson said schools need to find a way to start working together — instead of just poaching teachers from each other.

“Get everyone in the room,” she said. “I know everyone is protective over how they manage their schools and run their H.R. but if you get enough H.R. people together in the same room, I think you can come up with a solution.”

disaster ready

Here’s how New York City schools are preparing to serve students impacted by Hurricane Maria

Just weeks after Hurricane Maria traced a deadly path across the Caribbean, The New American Academy Charter School in Flatbush, Brooklyn got a call.

It was a family member looking for a school for two young relatives after their home on Dominica was wrecked, along with most of the small island.

Before long, the students were enrolled in kindergarten and first grade. The school quickly gave the family a scholarship for after-school care and provided free uniforms — even including new shoes, socks and underwear.

“They lost everything,” said Lisa Parquette Silva, the school’s headmaster. “As soon as I heard these two students needed a place, it was not a question.”

New York City is preparing to potentially welcome an influx of students fleeing Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands after the powerful hurricane struck in September, knocking out power grids and flattening homes. The leaders of the country’s largest school system insist they are ready for whomever comes.

“We are going to do whatever we can to support and accommodate them,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a recent press conference, “starting with our public schools.”

Hundreds of thousands could flee Puerto Rico. As home to some of the largest Caribbean communities on the mainland, New York City is a logical place for many of those people to land. They are likely to bring with them an untold number of children who need to enroll in schools — though officials say it’s hard to know how many until they actually arrive.

Already, the Orlando school system reported enrolling almost 300 students from Puerto Rico as of last week. In Miami-Dade, the number was around 200, according to The 74.

In New York City, schools have not yet seen a significant uptick in enrollment, officials said. The few students who have arrived have landed in Bronx and Brooklyn schools, they added.

Serving those students will likely require a host of extra resources. The Miami-Dade school system is expecting to spend $2,200 for every student the district takes in, according to the Wall Street Journal.

New York City schools chancellor Carmen Fariña said the city has sent representatives to Puerto Rico to understand how the situation there could impact schools. Meanwhile, the education department has begun to survey principals here to find out which schools have space to take in new students — and assured those schools that they would get extra funding. Guidance counselors are being trained to meet storm survivors’ unique needs.

“Money will be allotted to those schools to be able to service those children,” Fariña said at the press conference, “understanding in many cases there may be extra support needed for families and trauma.”

The state education department recently put out guidance for schools, saying children who have fled a disaster are likely protected by federal law for homeless students. Under the law, districts can waive documentation requirements for school enrollment — which the city is doing at its Family Welcome Centers — and students are eligible for free meals.

Nicholas Tishuk, executive director of Bedford Stuyvesant New Beginnings charter school in Brooklyn, said he is already fielding calls from people who are looking for schools as they consider whether to bring over family members from Puerto Rico.

The independent charter school recently packed a van with donated lanterns, batteries and water to be shipped to the island. School leaders have also put the word out that they are ready to enroll students impacted by the storm.

If the school runs out of space, Tishuk hopes it can still serve as a clearinghouse to put families in touch with other local options.

“A school can be a very powerful place to get extra resources,” he said, noting that New Beginnings has a bilingual staff that regularly collaborates with social-service agencies. “Even if it’s not our school, you should reach out to a school that can help you connect to those resources.”

Schools that take in displaced students will most likely have to offer bilingual classes and provide counselors who can support children who have been separated from their parents and are living in the city with relatives.

Eve Colavito, director of schools for DREAM charter school in East Harlem, said one of the most important things schools can provide is stability. The pre-K through ninth-grade school enrolled a middle school student from Puerto Rico this week.

“Our goal initially,” she said, “is to make school as normal and predictable as possible for them.”