Boots & Sabers

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0643, 01 Sep 15

Is there really a teacher shortage?

My column for the West Bend Daily News is online. Here it is:

The public education industry has lately been pushing a story that there is a teacher shortage in the nation and, in particular, Wisconsin. A closer look at the facts paints a more complex picture than that.

The word “shortage” is a relative term. When someone says there is as “shortage” of teachers, what does that mean? Nationally speaking, there are more teachers than at any time in our history except for a brief blip in the last decade. In fact, the U.S. has been on a decades-long teacherhiring binge as the nation has added teachers six times faster than the number of students since 1970, according to the Cato Institute.

This drove the student-teacher ratio from 22.4 in 1970 to 15.6 in 2015. Meanwhile, over the same period, student achievement remained essentially flat. If there is a teacher shortage, it is partially self-inflicted as we have flooded our education system with teachers without the benefit of a corresponding improvement in student outcomes.

The statistics cited most often as evidence of a teacher shortage in Wisconsin are the amount of teacher turnover and the number of open positions. According to the Wisconsin Education Career Access Network, there are about 1,000 open positions across the state as the school year is beginning. That is a few more than are usually open at this time. Considering that this is roughly 1 percent of all of the public education jobs in Wisconsin, that does not seem particularly troubling. Some businesses in manufacturing and technology envy the low vacancy rate of public education.

The turnover rate for teachers is difficult to pin down. Most studies estimate it at about 17 percent nationally with most turnover happening within the first five years of employment. But it fluctuates based on many factors. For example, teacher turnover tends to increase during strong economic cycles because the regimented wage scales negotiated under union contracts were not attractive in a booming economy when other jobs are plentiful. But even at 17 percent, it is hardly in the upper echelon of industries when it comes to employee turnover.

So is there a teacher shortage in Wisconsin? Except for some specific subject areas, no. For example, according to Ted Neitzke, superintendent of the West Bend School District, they receive more than 100 applicants for every normal K-8 teacher position that is posted. This is similar to what other district are experiencing. But when it comes to some specialized subject areas, there are fewer people in the labor pool. According to the Teacher Shortage Areas Nationwide Listing from the U.S. Department of Education, Wisconsin has a shortage of teachers for things like special education, business, science and math.

What is being misinterpreted as teacher shortage is really the introduction of market dynamics into what used to be a very rigid, closed-labor market. By reducing the relevance of the unions and giving school districts more freedom to manage personnel, teachers are more mobile than ever and school districts are being forced to respond.

Before Act 10, the path for a public school teacher was fairly defined. After graduating from college, they got their first job in a school district. They might change school districts in the first few years as they established a family, but after that teacher turnover was rare. For a teacher to move to another district meant giving up seniority and the pay, benefits and pension that came with it.

After Act 10, teachers have much more freedom to move between districts without being penalized. They can take advantage of jobs in other districts that might pay more, be closer to home, have better advancement opportunities, have better working conditions or whatever reason.

School districts are forced by Act 10 to participate in an active-labor market. No longer can they rely on the fear of losing seniority to keep teachers from leaving. School district administrators can use the power from Act 10 to shed bad teachers and actively recruit better teachers for their district. For the first time, good teachers whose skills are valuable are being called by other districts and offered jobs. School administrators are calling their own good teachers and working with them to keep them on board.

For good teachers, this has been a golden age of opportunity. They can leverage their skills and education to better benefit their families. For bad teachers, it is a time of uncertainty and fear. One thing that is certain is that most public school teachers and administrators have never had to work in a labor environment that is so fluid. Events like a teacher leaving for a better job two weeks before the school year starts did not happen before Act 10. But events like that happen in the rest of the economy every single day.

There is not a general teacher shortage in Wisconsin. Instead, there is a competitive labor market for specialized teaching positions and great teachers that is causing some uncertainty. There are a lot of winners in this new education paradigm. Students and good teachers are benefiting the most.

One final note: If there really were a teacher shortage, one way to alleviate it is to allow educated, skilled professionals to enter the classroom without onerous education and licensing requirements. But the public education establishment fought to keep that out of the budget. Perhaps the rest of us should not take their whining about a teacher shortage crisis seriously until they act like it is actually a crisis.


0643, 01 September 2015


  1. old baldy


    You state, “A closer look at the facts paints a more complex picture than that”, then proceed to gloss over many of the complex issues surrounding the “teacher shortage”.

    Sure Act 10 allows districts to engage in a bidding wars for good teachers. Good for the good teachers, as they can make more money at larger suburban schools. But kids still need to be educated at smaller rural districts that have been hamstrung by revenue caps artificially imposed by the legislature. Example: Our district recent lost a great young teacher to a suburban district. They offered him $20K more than we could. Even if we had the money to match that offer, how do you explain that big bump in pay to another good teacher getting paid less. Then everybody would threaten to leave (and some do) unless they get what the other guy got. Chaos would ensue. A business owner can raise revenue to make the math work but school districts can’t because of levy limits.

    And there is a shortage of new teachers in many of the science, math, ag and tech ed fields. We already are hiring teachers without credentials that have emergency licenses to fill positions because we can’t find anyone fresh out of school with those degrees. I think there were 4 ag ed teachers that graduated from WI colleges this year. Why, you ask? Because they can make a lot more in ag related private sector jobs than they can teaching.

    And one more suggestion: The next time you require a medical procedure, please go to a practitioner that lacks the “onerous education and licensing requirements”. Let us know how that works out.

  2. Northern Pike

    And guess which school districts benefit from a “competitive labor market?” Affluent districts like West Bend.

    There IS a teacher shortage in rural Wisconsin, and its exacerbated by a Walker administration that has torpedoed Tommy Thompson’s two-thirds funding. The funding gaps between poor and affluent districts that had been reduced by Tommy Thompson have been blown open by Scott Walker, and the gap will get larger and larger.

    I guest “equity” applies only to the voucher debate. When it comes to rich suburban school districts crushing poor ones in a “competitive labor market,” the concern for equity magically disappears.

  3. Owen

    Baldy and Pike bring up some good points. How do we balance a competitive labor market for teachers with a commitment to education equity between rural and urban districts? I would add to their comments that inner city districts (Milwaukee, Racine, etc.) also struggle to compete because of the work conditions.

    I think vouchers are part of the answer. I also think that a gradual reduction in overall state funding for K-12 in lieu of local funding while shifting state funding to rural districts is part of the answer. For example, a city like West Bend could support a larger portion of our schools with local taxes instead of state taxes. This makes the cost of schools a more local issue and we can decide for ourselves how much we want to spend on them. More rural districts that lack the tax base need more support from state funds to provide a quality education (and often larger transportation costs).

    Part of the answer is also that the competitive labor market hasn’t leveled out yet. It is still in flux. As you point out, districts have a ceiling of funds to work with, so in order to come up with the funding to pay specialty teachers more, they will eventually have to reduce the pay for more general teachers. Right now, the fact that we are still getting 100 applicants for K-8 means that we are probably overpaying for that position.

    But the fact remains that these are not new issues. Most of the rest of the economy manages them every day and has to figure out how to attract and retain scarce skills with limited resources. It is just new to public education and it will take a few years for it to normalize.

  4. old baldy


    A couple points in response:

    Voucher schools won’t help the small rural at all. When you have 3-60 kids in a grade there aren’t the numbers for both to survive. Unless, of course, you take the public school $ and hand it to the private schools. But isn’t that the goal anyway, to privatize education?

    Sure, cut pay for K-8 in West Band. See if that improves the quality of education, and maintains 100 applications/opening. Why not raise pay for the rural schools with state funds?

    School districts (and local government) aren’t private enterprises. You can’t make that argument in any fashion. If the XYZ Wigdet Co. needs a new machinist they hire one at whatever rate it takes to get a qualified candidate. Or they outsource the job to China. Well, we can’t outbid West Bend, or outsource our students in Florence, Gresham, Ladysmith, or Lena.

  5. Fairs Fare

    Can you please be more specific, I’m curious to know, what work conditions you are referring to when talking about inner city districts (Milwaukee, Racine, etc.). In anticipation of your answer if it’s going to point out old facilities, old materials or larger class sizes I would point out rural schools have those same issues. So, what’s left?’

    The “Yes Men” pulled another prank targeting the University of Iowa. They jokingly point out some of the outrageous and ridiculous policy/financing changes happening in education.

  6. Fairs Fare

    As I have said in the past I enjoy your columns which I usually read in the Waukesha Freeman. I have great respect for your opinions and appreciate the effort you put into providing them and maintaining this blog. However, and with all due respect, I find this column misleading and short on facts.

    Let me start with your cited source. The Cato Institute is far from unbiased, especially when it comes to education, and has taken some pretty radical positions. They are anti-tax, support privatizing public water resources and are in bed with the tobacco industry. They have actually claimed “secondhand smoke risks are debatable”. More surprising, that you would use them as a source, is their support for gay marriage and for liberalizing immigration. However, whats really at the root of your choice is their support for the privatization of public education. The Koch Brothers (founder of Cato) have made it clear the privatization of public education would allow a pathway to reintroduce religion into schools. They’re real agenda is mass indoctrination (Christianity) and doesn’t that go against the main reason this country was founded… Religious freedom. Moreover, the numbers you cite from Cato are skewed. They overlook the role special education teachers/students play in the statistics. For example, one child in my youngest child’s class, required to special-education teachers plus the regular classroom teacher. Thats 3 teachers in a class of 26 students. Do the math. Your numbers by the year cited directly correlate to win the Individuals with Disabilities a Education Act which was introduced in the early 1970s. The percentage disparity between what seems like mass hiring in teacher-student ratio’s doesn’t account for the one on one ratios often required by students with special needs (depending on severity). With that in mind the growth (factually) appears even, possibly, leaning the other direction.

    If we are taking numbers at their face value, as you have done, wouldn’t 1000 vacant educator positions translate into 1000 empty classrooms. With 1000 empty classrooms wouldn’t that increase student numbers in other classrooms? But wait, let me address your assumption/assertion that a teacher can give a two week notice now that Act 10 has been implemented. Completely false. Teachers are under contract with districts (not union contracts-employee contracts) and to only give a two-week notice,as if they worked at McDonald’s, isn’t sufficient in the professional employment of a teacher. Most districts, nationally and in Wisconsin, require a 60 to 90 day notice depending on the term/semester. Also, most Wisconsin school districts include in teacher contracts “the board has the right not to release, from contract, that teacher until a suitable replacement can be found”. In education it’s often referred to as a “student abandonment clause” or “contract abandonment” and although a district can’t force an educator to stay, the school board, if they can show good cause for resignation didn’t exist (example: a life-changing illness) they can request from the WDPI sanctions against the educator. Typically, resulting in a one school year suspension of credentials.

    Furthermore, the onerous education and license requirements you speak of were never on the table for core subjects (math science and english) as well as special-education. They were excluded by Republicans from the proposal before it was ever introduced into the budget. With education and licensing in mind let me point out that the same Cato Institute reports you pulled your numbers from also reported “higher test abilities of teachers is one of the most reliable indicators of superior classroom performance”. In Wisconsin we use the praxis one pre-college education exam to determine if a candidate has the potential and skills required to be successful. Post graduation from a program the Praxis two is given before a license/credentials are given. Similar to the bar exam or the med board exams. The Praxis two doesn’t just focus on subject area it also focuses on specific training skills and knowledge. I challenge anyone without a degree in education to take the Praxis two and I guarantee very very low success rate. Cato also reports “research shows that brighter candidates are likely to become better teachers but they are less likely to be hired”. Due to budget cuts most people in the know (educators) recommend a new graduate seeking employment not have higher degrees (masters or doctorate). Districts can’t afford the out of the gate pay scale demands. I would argue in this debate brighter means well educated. It’s my conclusion that no bright ideas have been offered nor have any nondegreed qualified candidates been offered.

    Thank you again for the column but as I stated its short on facts and draws conclusions from sources that have been taken out of context and misquoted.

  7. Kevin scheunemann


    There you go again: acting like public schools don’t have a religion: Secular humanism.

    It’s a cold, empty, religion with unbreakable commandment to never distinguish right from wrong for fear one might perceive you as judging.

  8. Fairs Fare

    Thanks, Im glad you reminded me. I must renew my membership with the American Humanist Association. I love being able to freely market the Association. Make sure you tell all your friends at WELS about the Association. You and your friends should sign up. We are having a two for one deal all month. Please join us for study on Wednesday nights and Saturdays. We expect 11% of your yearly income plus weekly donations. We have lots of volunteer opportunities and expect you to stand on a street corner all day with a sign promoting our cause. There is a branch called Christian Humanism that could only compliment your existing membership in WELS. You could join us in our boycott efforts of the Pope. I know how much you hate the Pope. Religious freedom is awesome.

  9. Kevin Scheunemann


    Hey, you are free to join whatever religious organization you want, even the hopeless ones.

    My only beef is: you deny the humanist religion is permeating in public schools.

    I only advocate equal time for Christianity to counter the humanist religion in public schools.

    Being a “Christian Humanist”, in the context you describe, (presume, you mean it in the context that certain sins are OK, like abortion, adultery as just dandy, and rejecting Christ’s deity, accepting only his human teachings while on the earth) rejects one’s Christianity and would exclude you from the invisible church, as well as the visible church. So Humanism, in the current modern day sense, would not be complimentary in membership to Christianity.

  10. Leo De Groot

    You do mention there is a shortage of Science and mathematics teachers in Wisconsin. Did you also check how many teachers in the schools are teaching mathematics, chemistry, and physics without a BS degree in theses fields? Would you please write and answer in the WB news. This is a major interest as reported by others. Therefore I do believe there isa great shortage.

  11. Fairs Fare

    You need to lighten up. Every word was complete sarcasm. As I’ve said before I won’t be baited into your off-topic debates.

  12. Kevin Scheunemann


    That is funny…given the way you take all of your posts so seriously.

    As a means of communication on a blog, I oppose sarcasm.

  13. Fairs Fare

    What don’t you oppose?… Fried greasy food chased by a diabetic coma inducing drink. As if you haven’t used sarcasm. At least you are consistent with the hypocrisies. Apparently, you take my posts more serious then I do based on your endless badgering and constant ridicule. Don’t assume I have taken the bait.

  14. Dan

    As a teacher that has taught in Wisconsin (Before Act 10), Nevada and now Arizona, I feel I can add a little bit to the conversation.
    First, school districts have increased the number of teachers that don’t actually teach. They are now curriculum directors, teacher specialists and other specialists that don’t teach, so the number of teachers is now inflated.
    There is a true teacher shortage in some areas where you don’t expect (maybe not Wisconsin but in other areas of the country, yes). There are shortages in K-6 elementary teachers and that usually was not the case.
    And many of the problems contributing to “teacher shortages” are the requirements of becoming a teacher. Many teacher colleges require about 5 years to finish and you are forced to take courses that are pretty much useless. Also, there are many people who could become teachers cannot, even though they may have a ton of life experience in a specific area. An architect cannot teach a drafting course, a college trained firefighter could not teach a course in firefighting, Stephen Hawking could not teach in a high school, a college trained auto mechanic cannot teach a course in auto mechanics and the list can go on.
    One reason why Wisconsin doesn’t have a real teacher shortage is that the pay is very good and have great benefits, even with Act 10. A teacher with my experience and education in Wisconsin makes at least double what I make in Arizona, but that’s my choice. They can have their money, I will take my 10 months of beautiful weather, no snow, beautiful mountains and a true conservative state.

  15. Fairs Fare

    Thank you Dan,
    I appreciate your input. I’m glad an “industry” professional recognizes the obvious teacher shortage. You gave great examples, the architect and mechanic, and included the key words college trained. If a person has college training (certified within their field) and is willing to take some sort of modified training course and certification (per district even) I wouldn’t have a problem with them teaching. I friend of mine who used to be the fire chief here in Waukesha (now Arizona) taught several classes at WCTC. He didn’t graduate from an education program. My wife also taught at WCTC and the same applies. They both had expertise in a specific field. So I’m not completely against it but when it comes to young minds (not adult college students) there is more to the equation. Teaching methods, classroom and behavioral management strategies or evaluation and testing strategies are corses typically required by most WI college education programs and are topics covered by the Praxis two exam. However, topics/subjects like these could be covered in a training/cert program. To just let a mechanic (even college trained) into a classroom of kids without some further teaching specific training would be irresponsible. My wife had go to through a training program to teach at WCTC. Another thing that’s being overlooked is teachers often teach more then one subject. Ms. Heuer (who is the real subject/topic of this thread) teaches more then one subject. As does Jessica Flitter, a West Bend East High School teacher who recently won the American Psychological Association Award For Excellence. Ms. Flitters is also qualified to teach Broad field social studies and alternative education/early ad. Many teachers are trained and licensed to do this and it saves the districts lots of money.

    The bottom line is money and in that sense having more part-time teachers would save us taxpayers a fortune. However, as a taxpayer this is one area where I’m willing to pay a little more to get the brightest, most qualified and dedicated educators. Some bad teachers do slip through the cracks. This would likely happen more often if we open education up to every Marvin the mechanic out there. Education programs aren’t easy and they are designed to weed out the weak. Only the brightest and most dedicated survive their candidacy semester and even some that survive won’t finish the program. It’s highly competitive. My numbers may not be exactly accurate but I heard that UW-Milwaukee gets 4000 applications per year and only accepts 200 candidates. Maybe, the answer to the shortage lies in those numbers.

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