Paul Bruno visited the show on episode 067 Teacher Shortage & Homework Inequality to discuss his recently shared working paper that collects nationwide data on teaching job vacancies and candidate qualifications to better understand where there are (and are not) teacher shortages across the nation.
Michael Ralph 01:36
For our first segment, we read, “Is there a national teacher shortage, a systemic examination of reports of teacher shortages in the United States?”
Laurence Woodruff 01:48
This was written by Tuan Nguyen, Chanh Lam, and Paul Bruno.
Michael Ralph 01:53
This is an ED working paper that is published prior to peer review. And we are fortunate enough to have one of the authors here with us right this second. Dr. Paul Bruno is an assistant professor in the Department of Education Policy, organization and leadership at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. He teaches courses in school finance and quantitative method with the intention of helping scholars impact school reform. Thanks for being here. Dr. Bruno,
Dr. Bruno 02:18
Thank you for having me. I’m very pleased to be here. I feel like I want to let you know, in the spirit of your program, I’m drinking, “Being a king,” double IPA from the Triptych brewery.
Michael Ralph 02:31
I’m so glad you’re drinking that and not me, because I don’t really like IPAs. But we’re gonna drop that in the show notes so that everybody else can follow up on it. So. So Paul, you and your co authors have done this rather extensive examination of teacher shortages, where they are, what they look like and how they’re arising across the United States. Can you tell us a little bit about why you’ve done this work?
Dr. Bruno 02:57
Yeah, so I think all of us are really interested in teachers generally, from a research standpoint, just because it’s so clear how important they are. I think that is clear in the research. I think it’s also clear in some of our prior experiences as teachers, so I taught middle school science for, for example, and the importance of teachers then raises the question of sort of how important it is to make sure that we have teachers in the classrooms where we want them and that those teachers are as effective as we want them to be. And I think we also are aware that every summer, there are a lot of news coverage, on issues of teacher shortages and teacher hiring. Because you know, mid to late summer is when schools are trying to staff up every year. There’s all the time, there’s these stories about teacher shortages, there’s extensive debates about exactly what constitutes a teacher shortage, and how to think about what makes a teacher shortage. Because if there are teacher shortages, that’s very important, because teachers are very important. But also, those debates are very hard to adjudicate, just because the actual evidence is super unclear. It’s very hard to know, the true sort of scope of teacher shortages and teacher labor markets generally are just really, really complicated. And so we wanted to try to bring some information, some as much as we could to get as clear a picture as we could of what the data show about actual teacher shortages nationwide and try to put that in one place as much as possible.
Michael Ralph 04:26
And that’s actually why I queued up this paper and wanted to have this conversation with you as it feels like, especially on places like social media or in teacher communities, there are these sometimes dueling comments about teachers saying there are shortages, we’re having trouble filling positions. I’m doing a lot of extra work covering vacancies and covering absences. And then on the other side of that conversation, there are people saying the data say there are no shortages. So your experience is wrong. And I personally really struggle to reconcile all of those conversations going on. Because I acknowledge that you see what you see in the data. And I acknowledge what you see in the classroom. And there has to be a way to make some broader sense of all of this. And so your and your co authors approach to actually trying to merge all of those stories together into a more comprehensive and thoughtful picture. I was really excited to be able to perhaps put down that tension finally. So what did you see when we say teacher shortage? What did you actually look at?
Dr. Bruno 05:30
So first, we had to sort of think about different definitions that have been used in the past or different ways of measuring shortages. So for example, we had to think about, okay, maybe we want to look at, we mostly look at vacant positions. So when we can find evidence that there are positions, teaching positions, administrators are trying to fill, and they can’t. But then also thinking about, well, maybe we also want to look at teacher qualifications. And are teachers fully certified? Are principals able to hire teachers who are fairly fully certified to teach things versus having to get emergency waivers or people teaching out of their certification? And then it was a matter of seeing how we could gather the data on those things. And so we took a couple of approaches. We did some Google searching, trying to systematically search through like news reports, for example, which is where it turns out, we found a lot of the most recent information on these things. But then also following up with either state boards of education, which sometimes make this information public, at least in some places on the website, at least it’s on some moderately reasonable timeline, or in some cases, following up with them directly. So reaching out to them, contacting them, seeing if they could provide us with this information.
Laurence Woodruff 06:40
One, I think, is an important thing to note is that this work hadn’t been done. There was no national database of teachers shortage information, there wasn’t any clear way to go look it up. So you’re creating information for the world to consume and we appreciate that.
Michael Ralph 07:02
And one of the things that you highlighted in your paper that I think is important to remember in these sorts of conversations is, it’s been pretty common for people commenting on teacher shortages to talk about a national shortage. But we don’t have a national education system. Like that’s not how we do education in the United States. And so being able to attend to the individual contexts of each state is a really important part of the consideration. It’s something that you and your co authors were really intentional about doing in your analysis. So what did you say?
Laurence Woodruff 07:33
Yeah. Is there a national teacher shortage?
Dr. Bruno 07:38
So I think we are deliberate about trying to, we try to be as explicit as possible about how agnostic we are about what might constitute something that you would want to call a true nationwide teacher shortage. That, depending, you know, depending on what your priorities are, you might come to different conclusions about that question. We do try to quantify as much as possible, what we know is sort of like a baseline sort of a conservative estimate of the actual number of vacant positions nationwide, which we estimate about 36,000 vacant teaching positions nationwide in the states where we have data. And if we extrapolate that out, to states where we don’t have data, it looks like it might be roughly double that, which is a large number. You might want to characterize that as a teacher shortage nationwide. But on the other hand, it’s a fairly small fraction of all of the teaching positions in the country, which might make you a little bit cautious about describing it at a minimum and describing it as a crisis. Because you know, in terms of the overall size of our education system, which it turns out is huge. That’s actually not as big of a number as it might seem. And we also find a ton of variation across different states. Now, we don’t look within states, but there’s probably some variation within states too. But that tremendous variation, both in the raw numbers of teacher vacancies, and the rate at which positions go vacant in different states also varies quite a bit from state to state. And that might be another reason why you might be cautious about talking about this in sort of nationwide terms, given that there’s all of this variation. And that’s even putting aside the fact that we don’t even look at things like different teaching positions within a state. So for example, we don’t look separately at elementary versus secondary teachers or special education versus general education teachers, even though from previous research, it’s pretty clear that there’s going to be pretty big differences in those cases as well.
Laurence Woodruff 09:34
Are you able, if we can’t at a national level, say “we have a teacher crisis” or “a teacher shortage issue,” Can you point fingers at states? “This state’s got a shortage. That states gotta shortage?” Do we have enough language and precision of information to even make those claims?
Dr. Bruno 09:51
I think one of the big takeaways is just how limited our data are. Right? So just in terms of the number of states for which we’re actually not able to get, for example, teacher vacancy information at all. And in many cases, we are able to get it, but it’s dated. And so for that reason, I think, you know, it’s important to be cautious about sort of like which of the states with the most severe problems in this regard. So we do find that vacancy rates are much higher in some states than others. I think, in particular, we find there are some states in the south southeast region of the country with some relatively high teacher vacancy rates. So like Mississippi and Alabama, for example, but we also see relatively high vacancy rates in places geographically diverse. It’s like Montana, and Kansas. Whereas the rates are much lower in, in other states. So for example, like Missouri, I believe, is where we find the lowest rate of teacher vacancy.
Laurence Woodruff 10:52
So if we are shaky about what we know, it’s really, you know, Ralph has said on this podcast that we want good data to make good decisions. That’s what we want. So if we don’t really feel super confident, because we don’t have a consistent language, we don’t have a consistent set of metrics. What should happen going forward? To address that issue?
Dr. Bruno 11:20
Yeah, so we make a few recommendations. One, a big one is just that, we recommend sort of trying to beef up both our data collection systems for these things, and for some of the data reporting systems for these things. So for example, right now, in most states, there’s much better data available about the qualifications of teachers, at least for their qualifications are measured by their certifications. And that information is pretty commonly available. But for example, there’s much less standardization around reporting vacancy numbers, that’s often handled much more, even informally, at the school or district level, or different school systems, or using different online job boards, things like that. And that makes it very hard to put these this sort of collect this kind of information, we think there’s important things that can be done both on the data collection side, but also on the reporting side, that might be more useful for making some of those decisions so that you can target the policy solutions, whatever solutions you’re thinking about, towards the schools and teaching positions, where they’re actually having the most trouble.
Michael Ralph 12:23
I can imagine if I’m at a school, I should standardize reporting. But there are a great many things that perhaps I think I ought to be doing. And I have limited capacity to be doing all of those things. And so what can I be doing to get my positions filled? Like, well, you could just fill my vacancies. And if I approach it with a blunt instrument of there is a shortage. And I’m distributing my resources to do all of my hires to the degree that I can, I’m going to be wasting some of my investment trying to fill positions that don’t don’t need that kind of investment for a search, because there’s not a shortage in this place for this subject. In our school. If we all want that data, we can help schools identify how to optimize their searches, and then benefit from the data that we’ve generated and help them do that, but help recognizing that that can help a school optimize their search, and thus fill their positions. So then get professionals in classrooms who are highly certified to teach courses with students, I think is going to be really compelling for a school who really wants to do right by the students who are in their rooms right here right now.
Dr. Bruno 13:27
Yeah, no, I think you hit on a really key point about the potential to waste a lot of resources and a lot of effort trying to solve teacher shortages in places where there aren’t really teacher shortages, either for specific schools or for specific positions. I think if you’re thinking about what kind of an individual school administrator can do about these issues, I think I actually am very sympathetic to their plight here, because I think that the options available to them are limited in a variety of ways. I think a lot depends, for example, on physically where your school is located, for example, what kind of access you have to teacher preparation programs and people graduating from teacher preparation programs, and the type of resources available in your community to fund your schools, for example, I’m not actually sure that those administrators necessarily need you know, better data from from me and my research or friends on this. I think if I talk to school leaders, I think they’re often aware of the fact that the you know, the, the the challenges are more severe in some schools and for some positions. In many cases, it can still be difficult to sort of adopt some of those recommendations like differentiating compensation. I think that’s often a politically a bit of a touchy subject, the easiest thing is often going to be to just sort of offer an across the board incentive for everybody. No one’s going to object to that, usually. But I think that’s the kind of thing that they should be thinking about for the reasons that we’ve, we’ve talked about
Laurence Woodruff 14:47
I’m really not trying to like, stab or catch anybody here. But my next mean question is, if administrators don’t need this information, who does?
Dr. Bruno 15:00
Yeah, I think that’s a really good and really important question. And I think, you know, as a former middle school teacher, I will say I’m used to much more hostile questions than that. So if that’s the best you got…
Laurence Woodruff 15:13
Justify your doctoral position research, you know,
Dr. Bruno 15:18
Yeah, so I, I’ve, I’ve certainly thought about this before. And I’ll try to make sure I’m, in many cases, probably speaking for myself as much as for my co authors on this, but I think we’re, I think we’re on a broadly similar page, maybe on a lot of this. So I think this is important for a few reasons. One is I think, even if individual school leaders don’t necessarily have a ton of options at their disposal for dealing with some of these nuances, the nuanced problems that they have, I think a lot of other people potentially do. So I think, for example, one of our target audiences, even as we mentioned, in our paper is journalists and the general public. And I think journalists in particular, are often driving a lot of the narratives around the nature of these problems. And so it’s not unusual. In fact, you know, I set up a Google alert for teacher shortage. And it’s just a firehose of news stories about nationwide teacher shortages that are at crisis levels. That word crisis even gets thrown around a lot. And I think that is absolutely driving a lot of people’s perceptions. I’ll say, Just anecdotally, you hear stories about, you know, families worried that their local school is not able to staff up and that there is a crisis at their school. And they are going to have some vague sense that they’re going to send their kid off to their school, and they’re not going to be adequately supervised because we just have this crisis problem. I think that’s potentially a problem in its own right, I actually worry a little bit about that sort of undermining the sort of faith in individual schools that are actually not having problems. And many cases might be dealing with these things really well already. I also worry about how that affects their attitude towards policy solutions that might be adopted, and sort of what sorts of solutions gained popular support. And then I think it’s also relevant that this information is going to state legislators, for example, when they think about potential solutions here and thinking about is what we need, in our state, for example, a policy that just tries to increase enrollment in teacher preparation programs writ large, because there’s a teacher shortage, or is that going to very similar to the issue at the individual school or district level with differentiated compensation is that going to mean that we invest a lot of resources, getting a lot of people to go into teacher preparation programs, we’re still not going to get the certifications that we really need them to get, and are not going to be willing or able to work in the hardest to staff schools. And so I think it’s really important as these narratives are evolving and developing that people are thinking about the nuances when they think about the policy solutions that might be adopted, even if an individual district or superintendent might have a hard time adopting some of these, these solutions, I think there’s potentially more latitude at the state level to target interventions toward the specific schools, the specific type of teaching positions that really need that, that support. And so I think we’re hoping to sort of inform sort of journalist audiences, which will hopefully then, you know, help to inform sort of policymakers and effect ultimately, the kinds of solutions that that get adopted, while also maybe helping researchers sort of lay out the case for how we could bolster some of these data systems overall, so that even those decisions could be even better informed with with better data.
Michael Ralph 18:43
I should acknowledge with this next question that teacher preparation is near and dear to my heart as I work in teacher preparation prior to my current role as a full time education researcher, and I continue to have deep involvement with teacher education and teacher prep programs at the national level. Acknowledged. And your study, definitely, one of the things that you pointed out was that you found some suggestive statistical evidence that teacher preparation plays a role, I would argue perhaps a big role, I would argue, perhaps the first mover role in a large part of this problem? And I’m wondering as you describe the need for a better articulation of what this problem is and what this problem is not, and how it shapes the way potential future teachers view the profession and the potential to enter the profession.
Dr. Bruno 19:34
Yeah, I mean, I think there’s a lot in that question. And I think I’ll speak for myself here and not necessarily for my co authors, but I think there’s a lot to the idea that teacher preparation has an important role to play here. And that is, as you alluded to, we do find in the paper that higher rates of teacher certification are associated with lower evidence, smaller evidence, weaker evidence of teacher shortages, right? So if you’re preparing more teachers in your state, you’re also at least according to our evidence, less likely to be experiencing shortages of teachers as we, as we, as we find that which is not maybe not shocking, but I think we’re emphasizing. And I think you are right to worry about some of the teacher shortage crisis narratives, potentially affecting who goes into teaching, right. And this is something where I’d be very cautious about speculating, because I actually have very little understanding of how the psychology of this might work. I think for some people they might actually imagine that having the narrative of teacher shortage is actually good, in some ways for encouraging people to go into teacher preparation, because what you hear is like, well, I’ll be able to get a job. But to your point, I think the nuance here is, again, sort of important for making that decision. In the case of, for example, you want to know exactly what are the positions where you’re most likely to find a job, but you know, in that we ideally want people to go into those teacher preparation programs about teacher preparation writ large, if there’s, if there’s already a satisfactory number of certain kinds of teachers in certain places. And I also worry about the sort of reverse psychological impacts that you mentioned, in terms of indicating to people, yes, you maybe you’ll get a job because there’s a shortage. But what kind of job? Are you going to get a job that, as we’ve already told you, nobody wants? And I do worry about that potentially putting people off. So I think it’s true that teacher preparation plays a role here, I think it’s a little bit hard to think about how all of the levers are going to work in practice. Right. So I think something we need to be thinking about also is the geographic distribution of teacher preparation opportunities, and thinking about, you know, how, and particularly in some communities that are like more rural, for example, where there’s pretty good evidence, a lot of the shortage issues are worse now from our paper, but from from other evidence, thinking about how do we make sure that they have the opportunities in those areas to, to recruit and retain teachers as well, I think is important. So I think teacher prep is a complicated issue. But I think it would be hard, it’s hard to think about how these issues get addressed without thinking about how the role that teacher preparation plays for sure.
Laurence Woodruff 22:11
I was interested, acknowledging that the quality of data is fuzzy at best, I was interested in the areas that sort of solve this problem by filling positions with under licensed or under qualified instructors. And How long has that been happening? To sort of like, you know, ameliorate the shortage problem? And what are the consequences of that?
Dr. Bruno 22:42
Yeah, I would like to know too. I think that’d be great to know. And I’d love for people, anyone who is listening to sort of chime in with that. I think something we do like to sort of emphasize is something that makes it a hard question to answer. And one of the reasons we don’t focus as much on the licensure issue is just the rules around teacher licensure and under what circumstances you can get, you can hire a teacher without the proper licensure. And what that looks like, those differ quite a bit between states. And that’s another thing that makes it very hard to generalize. So, you know, a policy where teachers are under qualified in one state, they might arguably be counted as qualified in a different state. And so that makes it hard to say like, well, because you’re under your teachers are under qualified, they’re not up to par, whatever that that might be,
Laurence Woodruff 23:30
Which further complicates making any kind of national claim ever. Because even if we did have a common language in terms of what a vacancy is, and what a shortage is, even if those were consistent, what you have to do to qualify to be a teacher to fill those vacancies is different from state to state.
Dr. Bruno 23:49
Yeah, I mean, I agree completely. I think I, I think over and over again, again, I will probably come back to this point that I think I’m not sure that it’s all that helpful to be talking about nationwide teacher shortages. I just don’t know that that adds a lot of value over and above describing the specific problems being experienced in specific school systems when it goes to another really important example of that.
Laurence Woodruff 24:13
So if we were really asking the question, your best to answer is probably not. Is there a national teacher shortage? Probably not.
Michael Ralph 24:23
But does it matter to you as an administrator hiring for a teaching position in New Hampshire? Whether or not there isn’t that like, you don’t it doesn’t matter to that particular context or any particular context. It’s
Laurence Woodruff 24:36
a really good headline, a lot of people are going to click on national teacher shortage.
Michael Ralph 24:39
It’s the best context to have that conversation. But we don’t have a system built for it. That’s my hot take.
Dr. Bruno 24:50
I have no opinion on the merits of a national teacher system. But I will say that you know, for I think it’s entirely as if I was an administrator trying to, really struggling to hire teachers in my New Hampshire School or wherever the example was that you gave. If anything, it’s not obvious to me that actually I would prefer that the narrative be that we have a nationwide teaching shortage. I think there are challenges that are somewhat distinctive for my school, and I think particularly because I have a lot of concerns about what we know from previous research our inequities in the distribution of teachers and the distribution of teacher quality, both geographic inequalities and inequities between between students who have been educationally marginalized along a number of dimensions, whether that’s income or race, I do worry about sort of sweeping all of those things into one narrative. And we talked about a nationwide teacher shortage, as if sort of glossing over the fact that in reality, some of these shortage issues seem to be much worse for certain groups of students in certain groups of schools. And if I was an individual administrator, or I was an individual family experiencing, particularly acute teacher staffing problems, I think I would be cautious about promoting that sort of nationwide narrative of a nationwide teacher shortage. And I might want more attention paid to sort of the particular problems that are affecting me and my community.
Michael Ralph 26:13
This has been a great conversation. Paul, thank you for being here and chatting with us about your forthcoming work, we look forward to seeing it when it comes out in its post peer reviewed form. And further, keeping an eye on how your work on teacher shortages, where they are and whether or not can inform our ability to make sure that all positions are hired with great people. Thanks for being here.
Dr. Bruno 26:31
Absolutely. My pleasure. Thank you for having me. If people are curious, the working paper is openly available online. We also have a website associated with it, teachershortages.com, where you can also check out the information that we’ve collected, we’d love for you to look at it. And in fact, if you have more up to date information on teacher shortages that we missed, we’re super open to getting that information as well.