Warnings about teacher shortages in New York State need a little explanation.
Shortages aren’t prevalent statewide – at least not yet.
They are more pronounced in some school districts than others, and more of a concern in specific fields or certain subjects.
There is, however, a noticeable drop-off in the numbers going to college to become teachers, which could cause problems down the road and is part of the reason for the cautionary tone.
That’s according to educators, researchers and local school districts, which have been grappling with this question of teacher shortages as they filled vacancies for the new school year.
“Ultimately, everyone is trying to solve the problem – or at least solve the riddle of what is actually going on,” said Jim Malatras, director of the Rockefeller Institute of Government, a public policy think tank in Albany.
Educators have been sounding the alarm, forecasting shortages in the years ahead based on the age of the current teacher workforce, projected retirements and fewer young people interested in the profession.
One example: 38 percent of school superintendents around the state said finding an adequate number of qualified teachers was a “significant” problem, particularly in rural districts, according to a new survey by the New York State Council of School Superintendents.
In Western New York, 35 percent of superintendents consider it a significant problem.
But when researchers at the Rockefeller Institute began reading reports of looming teacher shortages they took a closer look at the data and found no evidence of a current or imminent shortage.
In fact, Malatras said, student-to-teacher ratios have declined across New York State in recent years, in part due to a drop in student enrollment that’s likely to continue.
“It has been out there that there’s this massive teacher shortage and it’s a crisis, but when you really dig down, we kind of work against that prevailing view,” Malatras said.
But there are caveats.
Shortage in specialties
Teacher shortages are a problem in some parts of New York more than others, Malatras said, which is not unusual when it comes to labor markets.
Severe shortages are more noticeable in urban and rural districts with high poverty rates and minority populations. In those cases, he said, there is more teacher turnover, and the new hires are more likely to be less experienced or teaching out of the areas where they are certified, contributing to a greater equity gap.
“That’s not a new thing, though,” Malatras said. “What we’re finding is that problem has been in existence for a long time.”
Certain subjects are a problem, as well.
Some of the teachers coming out of college today aren’t prepared to teach in core areas, like math or science, or in expanding fields, such as career and technical education, the Rockefeller study showed.
Likewise, education officials have long reported a short supply of special education and bilingual teachers – both areas of growing student enrollment.
“Traditionally, bilingual and special education teachers are hard to find,” said Robert Lowry, deputy director for the state Council of School Superintendents. “In some cases it’s physics or teachers in languages other than Spanish. But in some parts of the state, particularly in the Adirondacks, we can’t find anybody. We have a hard time filling any positions.”
“It’s inaccurate to say either there is or isn’t a teacher shortage because our surveys say it’s a huge problem in some areas, but it varies around the state,” Lowry said.
In Buffalo, enrollment has been shrinking, but its workforce of teachers has grown, in part, because of a rise in special education students, as well as new English language learners.
One solution: school administrators have visited Puerto Rico the past couple of years to recruit bilingual teachers.
As the new school year started, the district still had 10 teaching vacancies, including four in special education and two for English as a new language, said Jamie Warren, Buffalo's associate superintendent of human resources.
“We are 99.5 percent staffed,” Warren said. “We have done a phenomenal job recruiting.”
In Lackawanna, the school district had more than 200 applicants for two elementary school teaching positions, said Superintendent Keith Lewis.
But when the district posted for math and science teachers, it received only 15 to 20 resumes for each.
“It was a little challenging. We had applicants, but not as many,” said Lewis, who is in his first year as superintendent. “From my understanding, it’s typical.”
In the suburbs, the Orchard Park Central School District had no trouble finding qualified candidates this year to fill all but one of 15 vacancies: a career and technical education teacher, an area in short supply around the state, said David Lilleck, assistant superintendent for personnel and pupil services. The district is in the process of securing a middle school tech teacher – hopefully – after reposting for the job, he said.
“I think that speaks volumes for a district our size,” Lilleck said.
And in Springville, there also were fewer applicants for some postings, but overall the district was pleased by the pool of candidates who applied for 10 positions, said Superintendent Kimberly Moritz.
In fact, Moritz said, finding qualified teachers hasn’t been an issue for her.
“I’ve been a school administrator for 19 years," Moritz said, "and I would not say I’ve ever encountered that moment when I said, ‘Oh my goodness, what are we going to do?’ ”
So why all the concern?
One reason for the alarm bells is the age of the current workforce of teachers.
The New York State United Teachers union pointed to data from two years ago that showed a third of its members in the state retirement system were 50 or older and could retire within five years.
At the same time, the signs have been troubling at the other end of the pipeline.
Enrollment in teacher education programs in New York State dropped 40 percent between 2010 and 2016, while the number of graduates went down more than 38 percent – one of the largest declines in the nation, according to the Rockefeller study and figures from the U.S. Department of Education.
“If that trend continues you could have a statewide shortage,” Malatras said, “but that’s not there yet.”
Some of this anxiety over teacher shortages also evolved out of the pushback coming from teachers, who felt their profession has been under fire and under appreciated in recent years during a time of increasing accountability.
Lowry, for example, pointed to a recent PDK Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools. For the first time in 50 years, more than half of the roughly 1,000 adults surveyed said they would not want their children growing up to be public school teachers.
“A few years ago, the atmosphere in New York State was volatile,” said Jolene DiBrango, executive vice president for NYSUT. “Teachers were being scapegoated and that did have an impact on perception. People, I think, thought twice about going into teaching because of it.”
“But,” DiBrango said, “if we can change the narrative and we can attract young people to the profession, we think we can turn this around.”