Teacher shortage? Sort of, but incentive pay could help fix it

That our schools face a teacher shortage is something that has been repeated so often, it’s taken to be true. One new study aimed to quantify the problem. So is there a teacher shortage? Not really.

At least, there’s no shortage of teachers generally. But the study did find a dearth of teachers in some categories. The Seattle Times reports:

[UW’s Dan] Goldhaber and co-author Thomas Dee, of Stanford University, however, say their research suggests the headlines obscure the real problem. They dispute the notion that there’s a nationwide teacher shortage. Instead, they say, their research suggests a more persistent and acute shortage of teachers in certain subjects and schools.

Specifically, they found it’s harder to fill classroom vacancies in math, science and special education and find enough teachers for campuses that serve a high share of students living in poverty.

The teacher shortage is an important problem, but the reality is different from the way it has been presented.

How would this be handled anywhere else?
For those categories where there is a shortage, there’s an obvious solution. If it’s difficult to attract people with needed math and science credentials to teaching, raise pay in those positions to draw more applicants. If it’s tough to retain high-quality teachers at schools in poorer areas, additional pay can change that.

Using incentives to meet specific needs isn’t just an obvious solution, it’s one that is the norm in just about any other situation. But the public school system is a world unto itself, and teachers unions are suspicious of pay differentials. From the Times again:

The authors argue that school districts could use financial incentives to attract and keep more teachers in high-need subjects and hard-to-staff schools. But that’s not likely to happen in a state like Washington, where virtually all districts adhere to the same statewide teacher-salary schedule.

“It is not surprising in a place with a strong teachers union that you have relatively little differentiation” in pay, Goldhaber said. “It undermines the purpose of the union, which is to bargain on behalf of all members.”

The preferred union approach is higher pay for everyone. There’s also a disinclination in teachers lounges to saying that some should earn more because of the difficulty of attracting instructors to teach some subjects.

Targeted raises solve problems
It may be a tough sell, but using higher salaries to address specific shortages makes more sense than, say, the practice of awarding a large salary bump to teachers with a Master’s degree. That’s a pay differential unions are OK with, but studies on whether the degrees improved outcomes found unimpressive results.

Meanwhile the “higher salaries all around” approach has a fatal flaw: it will do nothing to solve the problem of retaining high-quality teachers in high-poverty schools. As long as we stick to the current approach of strict salary schedules and seniority-based assignments, schools in poorer areas will continue to suffer from disproportionately high turnover – and the problems of continuity and experience that go with it.

Incentive pay could change that. It could help keep experienced teachers at schools where kids could really use a leg up. But it will require open minds about the benefits of pay differentials to achieve better results.
-Rob McKenna

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.