You’ve probably read about the awful teacher shortage in this country. School districts just can’t get enough good teachers.

According to the nonpartisan Learning Policy Institute, for example, in the 2017-18 school year there was a shortage of 110,000 qualified teachers. The slightly left-of-center Economic Policy Institute confirms the shortage and expresses alarm that "The teacher shortage is real, large and growing, and worse than we thought," and that it "threatens students’ ability to learn and reduce(s) teachers’ effectiveness."

That sounds pretty bad, but when you consider this is a shortage of 110,000 teachers out of 3.8 million — a shortage of less than 3% — it begins to appear that the teacher shortage may be exaggerated.

We’re in the longest bull market in U.S. history and there are worker shortages everywhere. Overall, in fact, there is a higher percentage of unfilled U.S. jobs in almost every area of science, technology, engineering and mathematics than in education. So how bad is it, really?

The Blame Game?

One of the interesting things that happens to news stories in the internet age is that when a story begins to circulate (and whether or not it also appears in print, all stories circulate online), the topic’s general visibility heightens.

Readers begin selecting it over other stories, both because it’s now a familiar topic, one they may have emotionally attached views about, and because as the story develops editors begin to seek out and assign stories on the topic.

These are professional incentives for writers to develop the topic. The hunt for higher SEO ratings motivates writers to go previous writers a little better — a teacher shortage even worse than it seems. In this way, the topic can become "a thing" — something we read about because it’s in the news so much and in the news so much because it’s such a popular topic.

And is that what’s going on here? At first, that seems possible.

Alexander Russo, writing in the Washington Monthly — another nominally nonpartisan journal with a slight leftward slant — points to this kind of topical trendiness and criticizes the tendency of generally reliable mainstream journals and newspapers like The New York Times to characterize the teacher shortage as "national."

Russo argues, "what we’re talking about are pockets and regional dynamics within and among states and by subject area and grade level."

In other words, a problem regionally and in certain K-12 areas, but not the growing crisis often described. Or so it would seem.

An Imaginary Instance

In fact, I’ll argue, the crisis is very real — it’s just not quite the crisis that’s usually described.

Let’s imagine you have a business painting houses and you’re short of painters. However, the small-business construction and home=improvement industry relies heavily on immigrant labor, and if you think there’s a shortage of workers, you haven’t driven through the parking lot of a Home Depot lately. In fact, there are almost always more semi-skilled and unskilled construction workers than jobs.

So, what’s the problem? Well, (we’ll imagine, although you would never do such a thing!), last year you decided to increase your profitability by cutting your workers’ wages by 50% across the board.

Painters, instead of earning the $25 per hour they earned previously, now get $12.50. In many jurisdictions, this compares unfavorably with wages for entry level fast-food workers who now make $15.

Do you think the wages you’re offering might have something to do with the shortage? And is that a shortage of workers or a shortage of funds to pay them a wage motivating them to become your employee?

And how would you solve the problem? By offering to pay more or by hiring untrained and undocumented workers that will work for whatever you’ll offer?

The State Government Con Job

And that’s what’s going on in K-12 education in this country. Minnesota, Arizona, and Illinois "solved" their teacher shortage in 2019 by lowering their credentialing requirements. Utah did the same thing in 2018, and in 2019 Connecticut is considering the same process.

The way the teacher shortage is often being managed by state governments isn’t by offering to pay more; it’s by lowering teaching standards. Unsurprisingly, no state government that I’m aware of has honestly described how they’re handling the problem. Some even blame the teachers’ union. It’s a con job and if your child is being deprived of a good education by it, you should demand better.

In a following and concluding article on this subject, I’ll get into more detail, some of it disturbing, on how this “solution” to the teacher shortage plays out, further disadvantaging the poorest school districts, and how some of our K-12 teachers have joined the cohort of unskilled and semi-skilled workers who work two jobs to keep their families afloat.