Teacher shortage? What teacher shortage?

Richard Ingersoll

Richard Ingersoll

Photo by Tommy Leonardi

School officials may be racing to find warm bodies to teach their students, but according to Richard Ingersoll, all of this running around may be for naught.

The associate professor of education and sociology said that contrary to conventional wisdom, there really is no teaching shortage.

“The problem isn’t so much that we’re making too few teachers,” said Ingersoll. “More than enough teachers are produced each year, from schools of education and whatnot. Rather, the problem is there are too many teachers prematurely leaving.”

Ingersoll’s work on teacher turnover has important implications for programs like Teach for America and Troops to Teachers, which focus their energies on teacher recruitment instead of teacher retention. “[These programs] may be fine but they won’t solve the problem,” he said. “We can bring in thousands of people, but if 50 percent of them leave within five years, where are we?” According to Ingersoll, the average annual turnover rate is 17 percent, but differences exist between schools, with some schools losing as little as 10 percent while others bidding farewell to almost half their teaching staff. Too often, said Ingersoll, the problem is linked only to birth and death. There’s a tendency to blame the crisis on increased student enrollment and a graying workforce.

So what is really behind this exodus? Based on his analysis of the U.S. Department of Education’s Schools and Staffing Survey, which samples thousands of teachers and principals, many teachers cite dissatisfaction as a reason for quitting.

Teachers who leave today want higher salaries, find student discipline issues overwhelming, and are frustrated by the lack of say they have in doing their jobs. Ingersoll, who taught secondary school in both Canada and the United States, said lack of support— “everything from supplying enough chalk to backing the teacher when there’s conflict between teachers and parents”—is also a recurring theme in this “sink-or-swim” occupation.

Strategies for resolving the teaching shortage should focus on how to improve the quality of the job, said Ingersoll. This investment may be well worth the cost.

The price of high turnover can be measured in the time and money it takes to recruit, interview and hire new personnel. But there are also less obvious costs that are harder to quantify. In a profession where experience can mean the difference between a good and bad teacher, a high teacher turnover can hurt more than just the bottom line.

Ingersoll said the disruption caused to students should also be considered. He painted this scenario. “Your teachers have just developed a new math program but then two of them leave.”

But before effective solutions can be crafted, Ingersoll said school officials and policymakers must see the problem as more than a supply issue.

Originally published on January 30, 2003