Frustration. Burnout. Attrition. It's Time To Address The National Teacher Shortage : NPR Ed New national reports out today by the Learning Policy Institute look at the widening teacher shortage problem — and offer solutions.

Frustration. Burnout. Attrition. It's Time To Address The National Teacher Shortage

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Teachers Wanted
LA Johnson/NPR

The good news: There's an uptick in the hiring of new teachers since the pink-slip frenzy in the wake of the Great Recession.

The bad news: The new hiring hasn't made up for the teacher shortfall. Attrition is high, and enrollment in teacher preparation programs has fallen some 35 percent over the past five years — a decrease of nearly 240,000 teachers in all.

Parts of most every state in America face troubling teacher shortages: the most frequent shortage areas are math, science, bilingual education and special education.

We've covered many sides of the shortage issue, including the disconnect between training and districts' needs; how the accountability obsession and paperwork are driving some good veteran teachers away; what factors help teachers stick around; as well as efforts to improve training for special-ed teachers to stem that field's attrition and chronic shortage.

Linda Darling-Hammond, president and CEO of Learning Policy Institute and founder of Stanford University's Center for Opportunity Policy in Education. Courtesy of Linda Darling-Hammond hide caption

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Courtesy of Linda Darling-Hammond

Linda Darling-Hammond, president and CEO of Learning Policy Institute and founder of Stanford University's Center for Opportunity Policy in Education.

Courtesy of Linda Darling-Hammond

Two comprehensive new reports on the issue, from the nonprofit and nonpartisan Learning Policy Institute, offer an opportunity to revisit and dig deeper into a widening problem. You can read the full reports — A Coming Crisis in Teaching? Teacher Supply, Demand, and Shortages in the U.S and Minority Teacher Recruitment, Employment, and Retention: 1987 to 2013 -- here. Also, check out the institute's interactive map.

I spoke with the institute's president, Linda Darling-Hammond, professor of education emeritus at Stanford University and co-author of one of the reports.

Whether this is a full-blown "crisis" or just one of many problems in education depends, I guess, on where you sit. The report you co-authored is titled A Coming Crisis in Teaching? Do you think the question mark is really needed?

If you're sitting in Utah or Arizona, there's no question mark — you have a crisis in teaching. If you're in better-paying Massachusetts, where there's something of a surplus in some fields, you feel a little less concerned about it. The other aspect of the question mark is about the future. We do certainly have a shortfall of teachers right now, and it looks like it will get much worse. But if we change our policies, we could solve the shortage. The question mark is really a question to us about the policies we'll put in place to address these emerging problems.

High-poverty schools have some of the biggest teacher attrition and shortage challenges. Your report notes that about half of all schools and 90 percent of high-poverty schools are struggling to find enough qualified special education teachers. These shortages are having the biggest impact on the most vulnerable students, aren't they?

They are. In some places, we see from the data that 1 in 5 teachers in high-minority schools and high-poverty schools is unprepared for teaching. When you think about how dependent on school children are in these communities and what it means for the quality of education they'll receive, it's particularly alarming.

Let's talk solutions. You write that teacher attrition and turnover are key factors that have to be addressed if states are going to get out of this crisis. Districts need to focus on retention as much as recruitment. Explain that.

We have a very high attrition rate in the United States: 8 percent of teachers leave every year. That's a couple-hundred-thousand teachers. Less than a third of them are leaving for retirement. If you look at high-performing countries like Finland or Singapore, or go across the border to Ontario, Canada, the attrition rate is usually 3 percent or 4 percent of teachers. If we could reduce our attrition in half to 4 percent — we call it the 4 percent solution — we would actually have no teacher shortages right now. We would have plenty of supply and be able to be much more selective about who we bring into teaching. So it is a big part of the problem and the solution.

I found it troubling that most of the attrition is pre-retirement quitting, a kind of, "I'm out of here." It's not the normal retirement trends of teachers ageing out.

That's exactly right. We actually have a teaching situation right now that is probably as bad as it's been for many, many decades. Teacher salaries have been declining since the 1990s. Teachers are earning about 20 percent less than other college graduates who are similarly educated. Even after you adjust for the difference in the calendar work here, in 30 states a teacher who has a family of four is eligible for several sources of government assistance, including free or reduced-price lunch for their own children in school.

Teacher working conditions are worse than they've been. Most states that cut their budgets because of the recession have not even returned to pre-recession levels of spending, which means books and supplies and materials and computers are in short supply. Class sizes are larger than they used to be. Then we have more and more children in poverty, more and more children who are homeless, so in highly impacted communities, the needs that teachers have to be responsive to on behalf of the children are also very, very taxing.

To implement the 4 percent solution, focus on pay and working conditions equally? Or one more than the other?

Well, you know, the people who go into teaching tend not to go in it for the money per se. They generally want to do good work on behalf of children, but you do have to get salaries in the lowest-spending states up to something that's at least reasonable to support a middle-class existence. There are high-spending states, mostly in New England and a few other places where salaries are reasonable, but other states do have to worry about it. Working conditions, however, are even more important for keeping people in once they've made the choice to teach. They both matter, but I would say that working conditions are equally important.

Preparation and mentoring matter a lot. Teachers who are well-prepared leave at more than two times lower rates than teachers who are not fully prepared. One of the things we often do in shortages is bring in people who haven't prepared to teach. Then we exacerbate the problem because they leave at two to three times the rate. The same thing is true with mentoring. If we could prepare teachers well, mentor them when they come in and give them decent working conditions, we would be very close to the 4 percent solution.

Speaking of teacher preparation programs, President Obama's long- promised overhaul of teacher-prep programs never got off the ground. This report seems to underscore the absolute importance of revisiting that stalled reform effort, no?

Absolutely. We need to make some investments in teacher preparation. Obama made a promise when he ran in 2008. He said, "If you will teach, we will pay for your education." That didn't happen, but if we were to reboot that promise and actually ensure that people who choose this noble profession do not come into it with college debt, that would also make a huge difference in the conditions of teaching and supply.

The reports make clear that minority teachers have some of the highest attrition rates. What can be done to keep minority teachers in the classroom longer? They write that one of their biggest problems is lack of autonomy in the classroom, lack of input in decision-making. That seems to get down to management, right?

Yes. A lot of these problems do get down to management. If you look at the reasons that minority teachers leave, the first reason is lack of administrative support. The second one is concerns about the way accountability pressures in the No Child Left Behind era created pressure to teach to the test, lots of sanctions and the loss of autonomy in the classroom because quite often in central-city schools, where minority teachers are concentrated, they were moved to a scripted, teacher-proof curriculum, geared to test preparation, which is not what people go into teaching for.

They go into teaching to engage students, to excite them about learning, to create exciting classrooms. I think there's both the support that teachers need to be enabled to teach, which administrators are a key part of providing, along with the investments in their teaching conditions. Then there's the opportunity to teach freely and creatively in ways that are exciting and work for children.

What are some concrete ways in which school districts can work on working conditions to make teachers stick around longer?

Of course teachers need materials that are necessary to teach. You know, the books and computers and that kind of thing. So clearly that's a first level of need. But beyond that, teachers always talk about how they want to be able to collaborate with their colleagues. They want to be in a collegial environment. They want to be clear that they're supported in their efforts. That there's moral support and the opportunity to continue to learn and be more effective, which is how teachers get their satisfaction — by meeting the needs of students in ways that allow them to see that learning.

That really means we need great principals. We need principals who know how to create learning environments for teachers as well as kids that are collegial and focused on everyone pulling together in a common direction. We do very little in this country to prepare principals.

Talk a little bit more about that. Should more be done to strengthen principal training or support, and what might that look like?

We do need to do more to support principal training and recruitment. We want to recruit into these jobs the very best teachers who are dynamic leaders as well and then help them learn the management skills that they need to succeed. There are some places that have done good work in this regard. North Carolina has a Principal Fellows Program that allows the recruitment of dynamic people and then underwrites their training. They get to train under the wing of an expert principal in an internship while they're also taking course work. That's produced a lot of great leadership in that state.

We need a real coherent approach, both in the states and with federal support, to be sure that our schools are well-led. I'd love to see us get a sort of a West Point for leadership in education the way we have the training for leaders in the military, who get the best access to state-of-the-art opportunities to learn these very difficult skills. That would make a huge difference in the quality of our schools, particularly in the highest-need communities.

Could be called Ed Point.

I like that. I might borrow this from you, if you don't mind.

Yeah. Steal it, please.

It's interesting, as a reporter, the most interesting, innovative and, I think, most successful classrooms I've visited are places where teachers feel they have a good measure of autonomy, are supported, and the schools invest in professional development. Your thoughts?

That is the special sauce right there. Teachers want to work together and collaborate, but then they have to adapt whatever they figure out to their needs of their own classroom. They want to be creative, and they need that opportunity to continue to learn and be supported by the leadership in the school. That's what makes people who want to produce learning happy. They are learners themselves. That's why people go into the profession. If you can get that secret sauce, you've got a lot of the juice you need for that 4 percent solution.