Ah, back-to-school season in America: That means it's time for the annoyingly aggressive marketing of clothes, and for the annual warnings of a national teacher shortage.
But this year the cyclical problem is more real and less of a media creation. There are serious shortages of teachers in California, Oklahoma, Kentucky and places in between.
A big factor: Far fewer college students are enrolling in teacher training programs, as we reported this spring, exacerbating a long-standing shortage of instructors in special education, science and English as a second language. In California, enrollment in teaching programs is down more than 50 percent over the past five years. Enrollment is down sharply in Texas, North Carolina, New York and elsewhere.
Add to those enrollment numbers the stagnant pay, attrition, retirements, an improving economy and politicized fights over tenure, and you've got the makings of a genuine problem in some regions.
"All of those things together are creating a serious challenge for us," Troy Flint, spokesman for the Oakland Unified School District in California, tells NPR Ed. "The teacher shortage we're facing in Oakland is significantly more dire than in previous years. We just don't have as many teachers in the pipeline."
With the new school year set to begin Aug. 24, Oakland has some 50 classroom vacancies. "The biggest challenge this year has come from the nationwide teacher shortage impacting all education employers, especially California public schools," Antwan Wilson, the district's superintendent, wrote this week in an email to staff and parents.
California has more than 21,000 teaching positions to fill. Districts laid off or eliminated some 80,000 teaching jobs between 2008 and 2012 during the recession. And as the economy rebounds, more young people have more options.
The shortage areas tend to be worse in districts with budget woes, a concentration of high-poverty areas and systems that are experiencing strong population growth.
Take Nevada, for example. In some districts, such as Clark County, which is home to Las Vegas, population growth has meant the district can't build enough schools to meet demand or find enough teachers, especially when you can potentially make more money with tips as a card dealer in a casino.
Pay is clearly an issue, especially in cities with high housing and living costs like those in the Bay Area, one of the nation's costliest regions. The annual starting teacher in Oakland makes a little more than $42,000. The average monthly apartment rent in the area is $2,802, according to Forbes.
Walsh argues that there isn't so much a shortage as a chronic, fundamental problem in how we train and place teachers. "We overproduce teacher candidates by a substantial margin. The U.S. has more teacher preparation programs than any other country in the world," she says.
"It's time for school districts to be much more insistent on what the qualifications are of teachers who enter and try to get a new job with them," Walsh adds. "School districts have to assert the fact that they are the client. And it's up to higher ed meet the needs of the client."
Walsh worries that talk of the shortage will prompt school boards to lower standards and qualifications to teach, which, she says, "is exactly what we don't need or want."
So, as children head back to school, what are districts with shortages doing to adapt? In many cases they'll turn more and more to substitute teachers — if they have enough in their area. Or they'll tap front-office employees with credentials.
"We don't want to rely on administrators with credentials to fill the gap, but that may be the case," Oakland's Troy Flint says. "We'll do that if that's what it takes to make sure there is a credentialed teacher in the classroom," when school begins next week.
Several big states have seen alarming drops in enrollment at teacher training programs. The numbers are grim among some of the nation's largest producers of new teachers: In California, enrollment is down 53 percent over the past five years. It's down sharply in New York and Texas as well.
In North Carolina, enrollment is down nearly 20 percent in three years.
McDiarmid points to the strengthening U.S. economy and the erosion of teaching's image as a stable career. There's a growing sense, he says, that K-12 teachers simply have less control over their professional lives in an increasingly bitter, politicized environment.
The list of potential headaches for new teachers is long, starting with the ongoing, ideological fisticuffs over the Common Core State Standards, high-stakes testing and efforts to link test results to teacher evaluations. Throw in the erosion of tenure protections and a variety of recession-induced budget cuts, and you've got the makings of a crisis.
The job also has a PR problem, McDiarmid says, with teachers too often turned into scapegoats by politicians, policymakers, foundations and the media.
"It tears me up sometimes to see the way in which people talk about teachers because they are giving blood, sweat and tears for their students every day in this country. There is a sense now that, 'If I went into this job and it doesn't pay a lot and it's a lot of hard work, it may be that I'd lose it.' And students are hearing this. And it deters them from entering the profession."
While few dispute the shortage itself, Benjamin Riley, head of the group Deans for Impact, a new consortium of 18 reform-minded deans of colleges of education, thinks it's not yet clear why potential teachers are turning away.
"The honest answer is: We don't know. There is nothing that has been done rigorously, in a way that's empirically defensible saying, 'We know this is why the number has dropped,' " Riley says.
Isabel Gray is a senior art history major at Millsaps College in Mississippi. She is passionate about exploring a career in K-12 teaching. But, as graduation nears, she's also having second thoughts about a profession that, she feels, is obsessed with testing and standards.
"You want to find the right balance between being a really good teacher and still meeting those standards and not just teaching toward the test, really retaining that material and not just being taught, you know, testing strategies. And it's hard to find that balance. And there's just so much that's changing" in education, she says.
The teacher employment picture is, of course, local and regional. One part of a state may have too many elementary teachers, while another may have too few. And the gaps vary by specialty — with many places facing serious shortages in areas including science, math and special education.
Riley worries there may be a national mismatch that few are looking at deeply.
"The question, and one that needs to be empirically investigated, is 'Are we overproducing certain kinds of teachers school districts aren't looking for and under-producing certain types of teachers that schools and other types of employers are desperately looking for?' "
There are, of course, alternative teacher certification programs across the U.S. including Teach for America. But TFA, too, has seen large drops in enrollment over the past two years.
One possible path out of this crisis is to pay teachers more.
But, across the country, proposals to boost pay or give teachers merit pay have stalled or been scrapped altogether.
An analysis just out from Georgetown's Edunomics Lab argues that boosting class size for great teachers would save money that could then be funneled into bonuses for those educators taking on a larger load. The savings would come largely from a reduction in the overall teaching force, angering teachers unions and their allies.
Riley says his group, Deans for Impact, is all for giving teachers a raise — if it's tied to better training that leads to higher graduation rates and other improved student outcomes.
"If we could really take control of the profession and increase the rigor such that teachers are effective from Day 1, I think that will prove to the public at large that this is an investment worth making, and one worth increasing."
In spite of all the noise and politics, surveys show that public school teachers still believe it's an incredibly satisfying job helping children learn.