Teacher Shortages in Schools? Blame the Teachers’ Unions

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A new report recommends that school districts adopt more flexible pay structures in order to address teacher shortages in high-demand fields.  However, California, courtesy of the powerful teachers’ unions, remains stuck with a rigid uniform pay structure for teachers regardless of the field in which they teach.

A just-released analysis by the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) says, “there are at least 55,000 vacant teaching positions nationally.”

However, contrary to the conventional belief that these vacancies are spread across the board, the NCTQ analysis observes, “The reality is, teacher shortages do exist—in specific subjects, regions, and schools.”

In particular, shortages are “much more prevalent in certain subjects,” such as math, science, special education, and career technical education, “which have long experienced the largest number of vacancies.”

Also, schools in low-income areas had more teacher vacancies than schools in more affluent areas.

The situation in California schools mirrors the rest of the nation.

A 2023 report by the Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) found, “The most common [teacher] shortage areas in California (and the rest of the nation) are in science, bilingual education, special education, and math.”

Further, the LAO report said, “Schools with increased staff difficulties include central-city schools and low-income schools.”

While there are a number of reasons for teacher shortages in specific subjects and geographic areas, salary levels are a key issue.

For example, the LAO pointed out, “shortages might arise in science because of uncompetitive salaries” when compared to salaries in the private sector.

If there is a shortage of teachers in certain fields, like science or math, while there is no significant shortage in other fields, then one way to address this situation is to pay more to teachers in shortage fields, as opposed to non-shortage fields, in order to increase the number of teachers in the former.

The NCTQ report noted: “Differentiated compensation can be a valuable tool for districts to hire and retain teachers in hard-to-staff subject areas or schools.  Research has shown that under the right conditions, it can incentivize behavior, such as bringing effective teachers into schools or subject areas most in need and increasing retention.”

As former longtime Los Angeles teacher Larry Sand has written: “Also, if a district is short on science teachers, it’s only logical to pay them more than other teachers whose fields are overpopulated.  But stifling union contracts don’t allow for this kind of flexibility.”

Indeed, in California, differentiated pay for teachers is virtually impossible because, according to a 2023 report by CalMatters, “again and again, teachers unions have shot down that idea.”

“The California Teachers Association,” noted CalMatters, “codified its opposition to differentiated pay in its policy handbook, which explains that school districts use what is known as a ‘single salary schedule’ to pay all teachers at all schools the same wages based on their experience and education levels.”

Teachers, therefore, are paid more based on their seniority and any extra education they may take, but not on whether they have an expertise in a high-demand shortage field or their willingness to work in a hard-to-staff school.

A spokesperson for the CTA told the publication that public school districts should not pay certain teachers more than others.

Because of the power and intransigence of the CTA, efforts to implement differentiated pay in California have foundered, with union-endorsed politicians like State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond adamantly opposing paying teachers more, for instance, if they worked in high-poverty schools.

Sadly, California is not alone when it comes to failing to implement differentiated pay in order to combat teacher shortages.

The NCTQ report found that very few school districts nationally explicitly offered additional compensation at a level necessary to provide effective incentives for hard-to-staff subjects and high-need schools.

However, Michael Podgursky, a University of Missouri economist and expert on differentiated pay in schools, has warned, “You can’t repeal the law of supply and demand.”  As a consequence, “if teacher salaries are not allowed to clear the labor market, then the market will clear in other ways.”

Podgursky says that the market will respond to one-size-fits-all salary schedules by luring potential science teachers to non-teaching job opportunities that pay more, which creates a shortage for science teachers.

As a consequence, he says, there will be an increase in teachers teaching out of their field (e.g., P.E. teachers teaching biology) and “teachers practicing with substandard licenses in the fields of science, math, and special education.”

The result for students is less effective instruction, which leads to lower student achievement.   As Podgursky concludes, “You don’t get what you don’t pay for.”  And once again, our children are the losers.

Lance Izumi is senior director of the Center for Education at the Pacific Research Institute.  He is the author of the forthcoming PRI book The Great Classroom Collapse: Teachers, Students, and Parents Expose the Collapse of Learning in America’s Schools.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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