As American students head into a new school year, a shortage of teachers — which reached a 10-year low in 2016 — is a major problem for an increasing number of U.S. states.
In some states, there is especially a great need for teachers of special education, science and math. In others, schools are not finding enough qualified language teachers.
In general, the U.S. has seen increased demand for teachers in recent years. Student numbers have risen, even as many school systems sought to reduce overall number of students per teacher.
Shortages blamed on low pay
Shortages have largely been blamed on low pay rates for U.S. teachers. The issue has caused some to leave for better paying professions, while fewer people are choosing to become teachers.
The non-profit Learning Policy Institute reported a 35 percent drop in the U.S. of people studying to be teachers between 2009 and 2014.
Over the past year, teachers from Arizona to West Virginia held major strikes to demand higher pay and better working conditions.
In a new nationwide study, 49 percent of the public said they believe teacher pay should be raised in their states from current levels. In six states where teacher strikes were held in 2018, 63 percent agreed that teacher pay should increase, the Education Next study found.
Worsening conditions caused by financial issues in some school systems – especially in large cities – have also made it difficult for some teachers to feel safe and effective in their jobs.
Different states, different problems
Many U.S. states are facing teacher shortages heading into the new 2018-2019 school year.
California is the most populous U.S. state. A study by the Learning Policy Institute found about 80 percent of school districts across the state reported a shortage of qualified teachers during the 2017-2018 school year.
But education experts say it is difficult to speak about a nationwide teacher shortage because each state and school district is so different.
Kate Walsh is president of the National Council on Teacher Quality. Her organization seeks to “improve the health of the teaching profession.” Walsh told VOA one way to look at it is that the country is actually made up of 50 separate labor markets.
While the biggest shortages are often faced in rural areas and large cities, the causes can be very different.
“Some states really are not having much of a problem at all, others do. And the reason they do is not one single reason," Walsh says. "The reason California is having a problem is not the same reason that Oklahoma is having a problem.”
Some school systems with severe shortages have changed certification requirements to bring in more teachers. Others have decided to permit the hiring of teachers with little, or in some cases, no classroom experience.
In some states facing shortages, Walsh says she is concerned that officials are lowering some quality requirements too much in an attempt to find enough teachers.
“There have been a number of states which have made some decisions that we think run very much counter to teacher quality goals.”
Walsh said often decisions to ease quality standards are made by state lawmakers in an effort to increase the number of teachers to please voters. The problem is, such decisions can be made without actual data on how they will affect school systems in the long term, she added.
Certifications differ across U.S. states
Dan Goldhaber, director of the Center for Education Data and Research at the University of Washington, says another reason for teacher shortages is that certifications differ across U.S. states, making it more difficult for teachers to move to another state and quickly get a new job.
“Teacher labor markets are pretty localized and each state has different licensure systems," Goldhaber says. "So it's not like you can easily hire someone to teach in California who is a teacher in Massachusetts. We don't have that kind of a national teacher labor market.”
Goldhaber says many teachers in this situation may decide to leave the profession because they would have to pay for additional classes and pass new certifications.
Goldhaber says one possible solution might seem obvious - that is raise pay and improve working conditions for educators.
“It's pretty clear that working conditions matter for teachers. So not surprisingly, your people want to work in a safe environment, with schools that are clean and have up to date books and all of those kinds of working conditions.”
Goldhaber says other things can also be done to help fight the problem. One would be to make changes to the U.S. teacher “pipeline” system to produce more qualified teachers.
“So increase the number of people who are enrolling in teacher education programs and getting the credentials that they need to become teachers.”
There are also several state and federal programs that provide financial assistance or student loan debt forgiveness for people entering education studies.
Some of these programs are designed specifically to train much-needed math and science teachers. Others provide assistance for people willing to join schools seen as difficult to work in, or to teachers who will go to areas where there is the greatest need.