A teacher shortage doesn’t look the way you might expect. Your child doesn’t come home from their first day of class and announce there’s not enough teachers at school.

Neither does this year’s K-12 classroom necessarily have a dozen more kids than last year’s. In some ways, the teacher shortage is nearly invisible, which is part of the problem.

What a teacher shortage does is most simply lower the quality of the available teachers. Unfortunately, in some states that’s been an integral part of the plan. And the shortage is already critical and rapidly getting worse.

As a parent, unless you can pay for a very expensive private education, there’s little you can do about it.

One of the continuing obstacles to improving the situation is a well-publicized and frequently regurgitated body of opinion that claims either there’s no teacher shortage at all or that we don’t need more teachers, we just need better teachers.

How Bad Is It?

The best recent estimate of the scale of the U.S. K-12 teacher shortage appears in the Learning Policy Institute’s A Coming Crisis in Teaching? Teacher Supply, Demand, and Shortages in the U.S. report.

The report is detailed and alarming and estimates that in the 2017-18 school year alone, there were about 110,000 staff vacancies without qualified teachers to fill them. Absent a major shift in teacher preparation and funding, these vacancies will increase at increasing rates year after year. By 2025, the vacancies will have tripled to around 300,000.

Why Is This Happening? (First, the Wrong Answers)

Observers don’t all agree on the causes of the shortage. There are even some observers who claim the shortage doesn’t exist.

Before getting into what I consider responsible responses to the question of causation, I’d like to spend a moment considering the likelihood that no shortage exists. One of the most prolific authors of this view has been Jay P. Greene.

He reasons, in one of several articles on the subject in the past few years, contends that no shortage exists because lots of teachers have been hired to fill in the purported gap; yet, there’s been no improvement in teaching outcomes.

This sidesteps the pertinent question: If the profession is still a 100,000 or more short, why would anyone expect the problem to have been solved? Instead of assuming that hiring more teachers won’t help, why wouldn’t a reasonable conclusion be that many more teachers will be needed before we’ll see a real improvement.

Greene also writes nervously about the tremendous increase in teacher benefits “in the past few years,” with the implication that we’ve already given enough and it hasn’t helped. But, again, Greene doesn’t compare teacher salaries and benefits with compensation in other professions requiring a similar amount of study and preparation.

The comparison has been made many times, recently by The Economic Policy Institute, which concluded that teacher salaries and benefits remain about 12% less than those of similarly qualified workers. Individuals like Greene conclude that teachers don’t deserve more money because they don’t accomplish enough and then propose that we continue to underfund teacher salaries.

This, as a way of getting better and better teachers? This is a lame circularity masquerading as an argument.

I’ll return to this subject in a following article. As it turns out, skimpy salaries and benefits aren’t even the worst obstacles to hiring enough fully qualified teachers. They are the various inputs and attempted remedies by the federal government, state governments and, then, of course, ourselves.

Ordinary citizens like you and I have done our share of making things worse, with the result that over half of all K-12 teachers leave the profession within five years of their first teaching job. This is not a good way to run a school system.