Long-standing teacher shortages could hamper learning gains

By: - September 16, 2021 7:04 am

Thirty-nine states, along with the District of Columbia and two U.S. territories, reported shortages of science teachers for the current school year, and 42 states reported not having enough math teachers. (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

New Jersey has for years faced a dearth of teachers in certain subjects, shortages that could represent a pressing threat as the state moves to combat learning loss incurred during the pandemic.

Some shortages are long-standing. The U.S. Department of Education has reported a scarcity of English as a second language, special education, and foreign language teachers since 2004. The lack of science and math teachers is equally long-standing.

“It’s a focus now. You’re hearing from many districts, ‘Oh my god, we can’t fill these 20 positions, 30 positions, 40 positions,’” New Jersey Education Association President Sean Spiller said. “That’s going to continue to happen in the future unless we address that piece of the problem.”

The problem isn’t confined to just New Jersey, either. Thirty-nine states, along with the District of Columbia and two U.S. territories, reported shortages of science teachers for the current school year, and 42 states reported not having enough math teachers.

“When I’ve had opportunities to talk to colleagues or been at conferences, it’s always that,” said Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), who chairs the chamber’s education committee. “And that’s why we always think about creating policies and pathways where we can encourage individuals to go into those areas to ensure that we continue to grow the pool so there are enough people to hire.”

Lawmakers have introduced numerous bills to address the shortages, but few of those introduced during the current legislative session have made it into law. Some of the measures predate the pandemic.

A bill sponsored by Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald (D-Camden) would launch a $6 million grant program benefiting organizations that recruit, train, or place teachers in high-poverty districts, but it hasn’t come before education committees in either chamber.

A Ruiz-sponsored measure allowing retired teachers to return to classrooms during the pandemic state of emergency without re-enrolling for pension credits won unanimous approval in the Senate but awaits committee and chamber votes in the Assembly. The Legislature is not expected to reconvene until after the election.

Lawmakers approved a bill allowing some university students to serve as substitute teachers and extending the time substitutes can fill a given position from 40 to 60 days, but those rules lapsed when the state’s public health emergency expired in June.

Complicating matters: the extent of teacher shortages is difficult to ascertain. School boards will know the extent of their districts’ vacancies, but existing law does not require that data be collected at the state level.

“It’s difficult to parse out too, because where are people going?” said Spiller, whose organization measures shortages using enrollment figures. “The number of people going into high school science is different than the number of people going into elementary ed or whatever it may be.”

A measure requiring the New Jersey Department of Education to gather and release data about teacher vacancies and staffing levels cleared a Senate committee in January but has advanced no further despite sponsorships by Ruiz and Sen. Sandra Cunningham (D-Hudson), who chairs the chamber’s higher education committee.

Despite the standstills, there’s support among lawmakers for programs to boost the number of educators certified to teach math and science classes.

“If we need to be creative to funnel a stronger pipeline into those fields or other fields, color me absolutely open-minded to work on that,” Gov. Phil Murphy said Wednesday.

The list of potential actions is long. Spiller suggested progress could be made by addressing student loan debt, altering teacher preparation and certification programs, or changing curriculums to draw in more educators. The change, he said, couldn’t come soon enough.

The pandemic does not appear to have had an outsized effect on the supply of teachers, despite scattered protestations over classroom formats during the 2020-2021 school year.

The 4,476 teacher retirements seen between August 2020 and August 2021 represented a significant bump from the 3,713 in the previous school year, but they lagged behind figures from the 2017-2018 school year, when 4,512 enrollees of the Teachers’ Pension and Annuity Fund retired, according to data provided by the New Jersey Education Association.

It’s not clear how many of those retirements came from teachers in high-demand subject areas.

The shortages could represent a growing threat to academic achievement as students return to schools after an academic term that saw many struggle to keep pace in remote classes.

A March study commissioned by JerseyCAN, an education advocacy group, found students in grades three through eight lost 36% of their expected learning in math, with even greater losses among students of color.

“I think the call for teachers right now is even greater because you have districts that are creating all these different programs to help students get back on track,” Ruiz said. “That requires a whole subset of hiring.”

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.