Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Increasing Demand to Reduce Teacher Shortages

By Lexi McCoolPublished January 1, 2017

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The United States faces a severe teacher shortage, with enrollment in teacher preparation programs decreasing by 35% in the past 5 years. To confront the stress and disillusionment driving individuals from the teaching profession, policymakers must cohesively prioritize education and emphasize programs that reduce classroom size.
Since the early 1990s, the United States' teacher shortage has become increasingly troublesome for parents, journalists, and policymakers alike. In "The Real Reasons Behind the U.S. Teacher Shortage" and "Frustration. Burnout. Attrition. It's Time to Address the National Teacher Shortage," Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post and Eric Westervelt of NPR highlight the main issues contributing to the educator deficit in the United States. As Westervelt describes in his article, "Attrition is high and enrollment in teacher preparation programs has fallen some 35 percent over the past five years." Overall, there has been a decrease of approximately 240,000 teachers nationwide, with the most frequent shortages in subjects such as math, science, bilingual education, and special education. As further described in Strauss's article, teacher turnover is extremely high with many educators feeling disillusioned by student performance or constrained by state mandated tests.
In the present condition, there are not enough teachers. While the need for highly skilled educators is apparent, several drawbacks exist making the profession unforgiving and undesirable.  Teachers often report reduced fulfillment and increased stress. In fact, fifty-one percent of teachers report feeling under great stress several days a week. Many teachers are also frustrated by stringent academic guidelines that make tailoring curricula to student needs exceedingly difficult. On top of these uninspiring conditions, wages in the education sector are generally low. Unsavory work environments paired with low wages greatly reduce the supply of workers in any industry; education is no exception.
To address the declining supply of teachers, the demand for educators must be emphasized and policies improving working conditions implemented. To do this, states should introduce a model that prioritizes smaller classroom sizes. Smaller classroom sizes not only increase the demand for teachers but also provide educators more time with each student. This allows for greater adaptability in lessons and improves classroom communication. Increasing the demand for educators by way of smaller class sizes also raises teacher wages (as illustrated by the laws of supply and demand) and combats feelings of disillusionment, encouraging more individuals to enroll in teacher preparation programs. Finally, smaller class sizes bolster student performance by increasing the time teachers can directly engage each child. 
Currently, the average US class size is 25 students. Meanwhile, countries consistently outperforming the United States in international assessment rankings, such as Finland and Denmark, cap classroom size at 20 students. While a shift to a 20 student classroom cannot happen overnight, the United States should promote a policy of "20 by 2030," in which the average class size is decreased by 5. This 13-year proposal will allow potential educators to assess the effects of the changed policy and begin to enroll in teacher training programs. Simultaneously, it will allow local and national governments to invest in the infrastructure necessary to accommodate smaller class sizes and a greater number of teachers.
Indubitably, states' budgets are constrained, thereby limiting the amount of money that is available for teacher pay and necessary infrastructure spending. In order for the number of teachers to increase and a smaller classroom model to be implemented, states must prioritize education and be willing to invest in the future. Until the United States' teaching shortage is treated with the severity that it deserves, teachers will continue to feel discouraged and students will pay the heaviest price.