In the Classroom

Why people think there’s a teacher shortage in Indiana and why they’re probably wrong

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

Superintendent Tom Hunter grew worried this summer when he realized that fewer people were applying to become teachers in his rural district, Greensburg.

In one extreme instance, a high school teaching position that he said would have drawn 100 applications a few years ago yielded just three. Overall, the district was scrambling to fill jobs weeks after it would have finished hiring in the past.

“We had about 20 positions that we filled this summer, probably more than half of those in the last couple weeks before school started,” Hunter said. “That’s really, really uncharacteristic of what our normal hiring procedure would be.”

An hour or so north in the suburbs of Indianapolis, Scott Robison’s district, Zionsville, was encountering hiring challenges of its own. But Robison, who has been with the district for nearly a decade, said the difficulty seemed to arise from a new twist on a longstanding problem.

“The hiring cycle for prime teaching candidates who are in subjects that are traditionally hard to get seems to be moving earlier,” Robison said. “And so for those of us who start real early in August, there are many [districts] that start in July now, that may have some effect on the pool.”

The two stories illustrate what’s wrong with the narrative that there are too few teachers to fill Indiana’s classrooms this fall, an idea currently grabbing headlines and spurring officials into action. Instead, in Indiana, as in many other places, the problem isn’t the number of certified teachers but a mismatch between them and available jobs. And the situation isn’t as bad or out of the ordinary as recent media coverage has suggested.

The first alarm bells went off when Greensburg’s newspaper reported last month about a sharp decline in the number of new teachers earning first-time teaching licenses in 2014. The follow-up stories painted an even more dismal story, pointing to teachers’ dissatisfaction with the state’s education policy agenda and to declining enrollment in teaching programs. One even reported that the number of students pursuing teacher training had fallen to zero at some Indiana colleges.

Some of the stories were just wrong: The bottomed-out education school enrollment reflected changes in federal reporting rules, not actual enrollment patterns. Others overstated the shifts. And few looked at what researchers say is the real impediment to maintaining a strong supply of teachers — retaining existing educators, rather than minting new ones.

A closer look teacher licensure data from a federal report and the state department of education reveals that while the number of new teachers receiving first-time licenses has fallen in recent years, the actual decline has been small. New-teacher licenses have fallen by just 6 percent since 2008 or 18.5 percent since 2009, when young adults shut out of other work because of the recession might have had greater incentive to become teachers.

Teachers from the enormous baby boomer generation are also now between the ages of 49 and 68, prime retirement years, and they are increasingly leaving the classroom.

Taken together, those shifts could look like a big problem to someone judging Indiana’s teacher supply just by those numbers. But the state is adding teachers in other ways, including by more often issuing “emergency licenses” to educators making career changes. Plus, first-time teachers make up only one-fifth of the new teachers entering Indiana classrooms each year, as educators who have stepped away for a variety of reasons return.

Overall, the state’s teaching force has been stable for more than a decade, according to federal data.

Data source: National Center for Education Statistics
Credits: Sarah Glen & Shaina Cavazos/Chalkbeat

Plus, “a decline is not necessarily a shortage,” notes Dan Goldhaber, the director of the Center for Education Data and Research at the University of Washington, who calls the teacher shortage narrative “lore” that has rarely ever been true.

“I am skeptical that there is a national shortage,” he said. “It’s clear that some school systems have a hard time recruiting teachers. But it’s also the case that over the last couple decades, we’ve produced two to three times as many elementary education teachers as there are available slots every year.”

Indiana appears to face a similar dynamic. Changing federal reporting requirements for colleges make using teaching program data difficult at best and misleading at worst. But Indiana’s job bank, which school districts can, but do not have to, use to list open positions, contained about 600 jobs, and the state licensed more than 4,000 first-year teachers last year.

Schools across the 11 Marion County school districts that serve the city of Indianapolis don’t have large numbers of unfilled positions — and there’s evidence that they’re in better shape than in the recent past.

With more than 2,000 teaching jobs, for example, IPS had just 44 unfilled jobs as of Aug. 17, and only 25 of those are classroom teachers, according to district spokeswoman Kristin Cutler. Just before the school year started, the district had 69 open teaching jobs, compared to 117 at the same time last year.

The rest of the county’s school districts posted only 27 jobs for full-time, non-temporary classroom teaching positions as of last week. The two wealthiest Marion County districts, Franklin Township and Beech Grove, had just one opening for a teacher between them.

So how to explain the experience of superintendents such as Hunter, who say they can’t easily find qualified teachers to fill their open jobs?

“You can’t say whether it is a supply or demand issue across the board,” Goldhaber said. “It really varies depending on the school and the kind of teacher that we are looking for.”

Indeed, hiring seems to be toughest for schools in areas of Indiana that some teachers view as less desirable to work in, such as isolated rural communities and high-poverty urban neighborhoods. Jobs that require more schooling or specialized skills, such as science, math and special education teaching jobs, are also harder to fill — but that’s nothing new.

“Even ten years ago when I first came to Zionsville it was difficult to hire certain areas,” Robison said. “Science, math and special education have always been more difficult than other areas.”

In IPS, most of the open elementary school positions are at schools rated a D or F by the state. At the high school level, the jobs are spread between magnet and neighborhood schools, but usually in career tech and positions that require knowledge of science, math, or foreign language.

Carol Hofer, a teacher at Fox Hill Elementary School, works with English learners in a small group lesson. Teachers with special skills such as an English learner certification are harder for district's to recruit.
PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Carol Hofer, a teacher at Fox Hill Elementary School, works with English learners in a small group lesson. Teachers with special skills such as an English learner certification are harder for districts to recruit.

The persistent challenge of filling jobs in those areas is one reason that districts would be smart to find ways to keep the educators they have, said Richard Ingersoll, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania who studies teacher workforce trends.

“It’s sort of foolish,” Ingersoll said. “Here you have these people who are really good, and the state can’t make any efforts to retain them. Instead, they recruit newbies.”

Some states and districts have tried to use pay incentives to keep qualified teachers in place. That idea hasn’t been on the table in Indiana, where pay is relatively low and Indianapolis teachers just won their first raise in five years. But in addition to being expensive, those incentives might not tackle the issues that Ingersoll says most frequently drive teachers to leave their classrooms. He has found that work conditions are the most important consideration for teachers who are deciding whether to stay in the profession.

In Indiana, rapidly changing expectations for educators have unsettled working conditions for teachers in recent years. Political battles over education policy put schools under scrutiny and induced a rapid transition to tougher academic standards — and consequences for not meeting them.

That shift caused Ashley Maloff, a 25-year-old academic advisor at Purdue University, to abandon her plans to become a special education teacher. As a student teacher, she bristled at the limits placed on her in the classroom.

“It just became less fun and more like I was constantly checking myself, not knowing if you were going to have a job the next year if your kids don’t pass the test,” Maloff said. “In special education, that’s huge because most kids aren’t reading or writing at grade level.”

Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, believes fewer teachers would leave the profession if they felt like they had support from legislators and other state leaders.

“There really is a climate that’s been created, and we have to look at the climate and figure out how to fix it,” Meredith said. “Who cares what the data says because when you have administrators who don’t have applicants before the first day of school, there’s a shortage, end of story.”

Alarmed by the specter of a teacher shortage, Indiana State Board of Education member Gordon Hendry said his plan to offer top students who choose to study education four years of free college tuition if they commit to teaching at least four years in Indiana schools will address problems of both recruiting and retaining good teachers.

A teacher helps a student during classroom instruction at McClelland Elementary School. Colleges produce two to three times as many elementary school teachers as there are open jobs for them each year.
PHOTO: Allen Underwood, Courtesy of Wayne Township Schools
A teacher helps a student during classroom instruction at McClelland Elementary School. Colleges produce two to three times as many elementary school teachers as there are open jobs for them each year, one researcher said.

Whether the $4.5 million proposal will gain traction remains to be seen. Hendry said he expects lawmakers to discuss it at a special committee meeting next month.

Legislators also took a pass earlier this year when two bills went nowhere that were designed to offer extra pay to teachers who complete National Board Certification, a rigorous evaluation of how a teacher teaches, in exchange for agreeing to mentor others.

Indiana’s legislative and education leaders might ultimately be trying to solve the wrong problem if they decide to adopt a plan that is about recruitment rather than one that rewards long-standing teachers and improves working conditions.

“Almost every president since Eisenhower has given a speech on teacher shortage … we’ve spent umpteen dollars trying to fix this over the last half-century,” Ingersoll said. “But this is the wrong diagnosis and the wrong prescription … It’s not an under-supply, it’s too much turnover.”

First Person

I’m a Chicago teacher who has watched many Javions fall through the cracks. Here’s what would help.

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel
A mural inside the Community Youth Development Institute.

As a Chicago Public School teacher and librarian for the past 15 years, I’ve seen many students fall through the cracks.

I remember the young man who sat in my class at the beginning of his senior year, eager to learn. By the end he was failing, having missed over 30 days of school for reasons unknown to me. Or the sophomore girl who transferred out after displaying behavior and academic problems. I saw her years later on the Chicago Tribune’s mugshot webpage.

Both of these students came to mind when I read Adeshina Emmanuel’s story about Javion Grayer, a 16-year-old Chicago student who reads at the second grade level.

What struck me about Javion’s story was that his educational experience was as disjointed as his home life. He switched schools several times, and his family wished someone could help him. But many of the schools he attended did not provide adequate special education services or reading specialists.

This is not a problem unique to Javion. In Chicago Public Schools, a district that prides itself on its variety of choices for families, Javion’s story is an illustration of how little all of those schools can have in common and how little they work together. The result can be students getting a patchwork education within one school district, with little horizontal alignment among schools that serve the same grades, and little vertical alignment among its K-8 schools and high schools.

At Lindblom High School, where I am a teacher librarian, we see transfer students who want to come to Lindblom in search of something better. I watch many transfer students who come with grass-is-greener hopes struggle because of differences in curriculum, instruction, expectations, and school culture. Lindblom is a selective enrollment high school, and many that transfer in are not coming from other selective enrollment schools, which may exacerbate this. But Javion’s experience was probably somewhat similar, watching schools right next to one another operate in very different ways.

Elementary schools that once acted as feeder schools to neighborhood high schools are now feeder schools for every high school in the city. That leaves elementary schools not knowing much about the expectations of the high schools their students will go on to attend, and high schools not knowing exactly what students learned during their elementary experience.

When I taught freshman English for a couple of school years, not once did I know any information about the curriculum my incoming students had used. I didn’t even know what elementary school they came from, let alone their specific struggles or strengths. Think about how much more effective our high schools would be if we actually had that information.

Javion also missed out on something that many CPS children are missing — access to a reading specialist. Reading specialists have been disappearing in the last decade thanks to student-based budgeting, where schools receive budgets based on their enrollment and principals decide how to allocate their funds. If their school’s enrollment is declining, principals often decide to forego a reading specialist to save a teaching position. This does not mean that those positions are not needed; on the contrary, they are very much needed in schools that serve high-needs students like Javion. Those are also often the schools declining in enrollment.

When I started teaching, I experienced the benefits of a reading specialist myself. I was not prepared to teach reading, as much of my teacher education taught me to become a teacher like the ones I had in high school — ones that assigned texts, held discussions, and gave feedback on essays. I knew little of what to do when students didn’t or couldn’t read the assigned text. I quickly discovered that holding a discussion on a chapter that only a few students have read or understood didn’t make for an effective classroom.

It was my school’s reading specialist who taught me how to help students access unfamiliar texts and incorporate a slew of strategies into my classroom.  She also let me know that it’s OK to use class time for reading, and that my students would benefit from me reading aloud to the class, too. My students become better readers, and many of my classroom management issues disappeared, too.

In 2019, to help students like Javion, the district should prioritize addressing both problems. Chicago Public Schools needs to make sure students are learning the same basic reading skills in every school, and that high schools understand what’s being taught to younger students and vice versa.

The district also needs reading specialists to return. I wish that Javion had attended a school where such a specialist could have helped his teachers and worked one-on-one with students who are grade levels behind in reading. He would have been noticed; he would have been helped. I have that same wish for students and teachers across the district.

Gina Caneva is a 15-year Chicago Public Schools veteran who works as a teacher-librarian and writing center director at Lindblom Math and Science Academy. She is a National Board Certified teacher and Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship alum. She is also a certified reading specialist. Follow her on Twitter @GinaCaneva.

This Colorado history teacher sees the effects of immigration policy every day — in her worried students

PHOTO: Kelly Cvanciger
Kelly Cvanciger, at left, poses with students from her AP government class last year.

Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Some of Kelly Cvanciger’s students at Bear Creek High School in Lakewood live with constant worry — about the possibility of deportation, arrest, or being separated from their families. They are immigrants legally residing in the U.S. through the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, an Obama-era initiative that the Trump administration has sought to end.

“Trying to convince kids to actively participate in their education and learn geography when they face an uncertain future cripples our education system,” said Cvanciger, a history teacher. “It’s just not fair.”

Cvanciger, who was one of six finalists for the 2019 Colorado Teacher of the Year award, talked about how current immigration policies distract students from their studies, why she moved her desk to the back of the classroom, and what she learned from her son, who has autism spectrum disorder.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

I have had some amazing teachers in my life who inspired me as a student. In elementary school it was my fifth grade teacher, Mr. Strong. In high school, it was my French teacher, Ms. Nasvitis. In college, it was Dr. Harry Swanhart. They made me fall in love with education and never want to miss a day. I would cry if my parents told me I was too sick to attend school. I thought teaching was the coolest job because they made teaching look so fun and loved their students. While I temporarily flirted with majoring in veterinary medicine in college, my love of history lured me back to teaching and by my second year of college I was sure that it was my future. I have not looked back since.

Has having a child on the autism spectrum shaped your approach to teaching? If so, how?

Having a son diagnosed with autism opened up an entire new world in terms of understanding how education needs to look different for individual students. My son has taught me that too many people know little to nothing about autism spectrum disorder and that includes the vast majority of teachers who instruct students diagnosed with the disorder. Most do not understand sensory triggers and how students with autism learn. Every child with autism spectrum disorder is unique and their learning styles are more varied than the average mainstream learner.

Because of my son, I have become a better teacher. I taught for 13 years before he was born. He has opened my eyes to learning obstacles that I was otherwise not tuned into, especially for children with developmental disabilities who do not learn from the archaic model of “sage on the stage” teaching.

How do you get to know your students?

I constantly talk to my students and ask them questions so I can cater my examples in class to topics that they can relate to in their lives. Making a connection with each student is important so that they know people care about their lives. Most students are very willing to talk to teachers about their life, family situation, and goals for their future. Some people discredit the relationship-building piece in a classroom, but I believe fostering positive relationships is really the start to opening students up to a world of learning.

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

I love to start teaching with Hammurabi’s Law Code. It is an insightful look into the social and political ideals of the ancient river valley civilization of Mesopotamia. The reason it still has relevance today is that many of the social rules that existed related to birth rights, marriage, gender roles, and societal norms have changed little in over 3,000 years. It provides a useful glimpse into how inflexible social hierarchies really are and defines a foundation for right and wrong for millennium within those societies.

What object would you be helpless without during the school day?

This sounds so simple, but I have a pen in my hand the entire time, and write notes everywhere in my room. It is crucial to document everything in education down to the smallest detail and I always find that I could have taught a lesson differently so I write it down as I am teaching. I have entire notebooks full of “fixes” from years of teaching the same subjects. I always feel an urgent need to record thoughts before they slip away. A pen also helps when teaching as I can make comments specific to each child while students are working.

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?

I have a lot of students that have “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status” in my classes. The news affects my students on a daily basis. They worry about being deported, being arrested, and being separated from their families. It is impossible to end their worries with our existing immigration policies. Trying to convince kids to actively participate in their education and learn geography when they face an uncertain future cripples our education system. It’s just not fair. We have to find a way to teach students so that they understand their role in society and how they can change their future.

What part of your job is most difficult?

The most difficult part of my job is talking to students who have difficulties in their family situations. It breaks my heart when students come to school and face significant hardships at home through no fault of their own. For students, this presents an obstacle to learning and is a challenge to overcome.

What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

I used to think that all students wanted to learn and come to school since I always wanted to go to school to learn. But when I became a teacher I realized that was the exception, not the norm. Some students grow up with a conception of school as a necessary evil, something they are forced to do because the law says so or their parents say so. Not all students want to learn (at least the subjects they are offered in school), they have too many obstacles to learn, and most dread coming to school for a variety of reasons. No matter how hard I try to get every student to love history, some just never will, and that was a tough lesson.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

I have always been a reader, since I was a little girl. I find that it is the only way to calm my brain in the evenings. I only read two types of books: historical fiction and historical non-fiction. Reading allows me to keep up in my field. Right now, I am reading “The Gulag Archipelago” by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and “Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar” by Simon Sebag Montefiore. Both are challenging reads in their own right, and discuss polarizing views on Stalin’s purges of Soviet-era Russia.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

I was reading a study about a decade ago that came to the conclusion that your teacher desk should be at the back of the room. The study concluded that students have a fear of approaching teachers who place their desk at the front of the room because it creates a psychological barrier between the student and teacher, making the student feel inferior to the teacher as a human being. I immediately moved my desk to the back of the room. This was an eye-opening change as students wanted to talk to me more often as I navigated the classroom rather than coming to my desk with questions. By removing the barrier, I built closer relationships between myself and my students.