It’s clear that many schools in Washington State need help.
In Seattle, dozens of bus lines have been suspended indefinitely due to the lack of enough drivers. To control the coronavirus, paraeducators and teachers are taking on new lunch safety duties. An apparent lack of substitute teachers in the state’s largest school districts has forced day-long closures around Veterans Day. And educators say they are burning out.
Media coverage and government officials pointed to labor shortages worsened by the pandemic, and even warned of a mass exodus of teachers. Forty percent of superintendents across the country interviewed by the news magazine Education Week reported that their staff shortages were “serious” or “very serious”.
“We know we’re really thin everywhere,” Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal said in an interview last month.
But there’s more to the story, said Dan Goldhaber, an education researcher at the University of Washington who has studied teacher employment trends for more than a decade. His research suggests that some education jobs are harder to fill than others.
This fall, Goldhaber and another researcher collected data from the websites of nearly every school district in Washington state for job postings twice a week between late September and late October, analyzing more than 6,500 different jobs advertised.
They found jobs for people with teaching licenses who made up just 11 percent of more than 6,500 postings across the state. The most sought-after school employees were paraeducators, who in most cases work with children with disabilities.
Within education, the work of researchers, published in a report last month showed trends that have been around for decades, including that teachers working in special education were the most in demand. These workers had nearly double the number of assignments compared to assignments in elementary schools, even though the latter is listed as the area of instruction with the greatest shortage by the state’s Professional Educator Standards Board. (Special education is listed second.)
The report also found that the number of postings was higher in low-income districts and in rural areas, where it has historically been more difficult to recruit staff.
“If we’re reporting … that everything is painful, people may not be getting the right message,” Goldhaber said. Focusing on pressure points is important for crafting the right solutions, he said.
Asked about Goldhaber’s findings, Reykdal acknowledged that there are positions that have always been more difficult to fill. But he defended the state’s position that there are staffing shortages in all areas.
“I may not disagree that this is a historical problem, but now it is very acute,” he said, pointing to the number of teaching requests from emergency received by the State.
In the first two months of school, the state issued nearly 2,000 emergency certificates, which allow people who have not met state teacher licensing standards to lead a class. That’s nearly half the number issued by the state for the entire 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years. These are the numbers the state looks at to determine where there are shortages.
Goldhaber does not disagree with the use of this number to draw conclusions about shortages; he himself used this data. But when these numbers are weighted against other factors, the disparities in need become more apparent.
One factor is the number of people a school district typically hires in a given job category. It is logical, for example, that there are more requests for emergency teachers in primary education than for specialized educators; there are just more former working in schools than latter.
The report takes this difference into account. Even though there are twice as many postings for special educators as for primary teachers, the vacancy rate for special educators is eight times higher than for primary teachers.
“There’s no question in my mind that it’s harder to hire people now than it was last year, but it’s also that special education is harder to staff. . If you treat things like they’re all the same… you’re going for a solution that’s a mile wide and an inch deep,” he said.
One potential solution: Create a salary incentive for hard-to-fill positions, Goldhaber said.
This idea is unpopular among teachers’ unions, which prefer a pay scale based on teaching experience. Reykdal says he supports the idea that some teacher candidates with experience in another industry, such as technology, should be able to start higher on the pay scale. Such a change would be decided during negotiations between school districts and unions. He said he would consider encouraging districts to create incentives like this if “the research is clear we need to do something different.”
There were some trends that Goldhaber and his team couldn’t study or put into context, including historical trends for non-teaching positions such as bus drivers – there just isn’t a ton of data out there. on these jobs. Data on substitute teachers – another high-demand position – is also sparse.
As for the causes of the staffing shortages we are seeing right now, it’s hard to say. Some research suggests school districts have added more staff positions, such as COVID-19 safety monitors, creating the need to hire more people.
For others, such as bus drivers, it might be that many quit because of the vaccine mandate or because they demanded better pay and stable work.
A few national surveys have warned of a mass exodus of teachers and other workers this year due to burnout. But it is difficult to obtain real-time data on the number of teachers who have left. Neither the state nor the researchers have this information.
Teacher attrition is inversely related to unemployment rates, research shows. When the unemployment rate is high, fewer teachers leave their jobs. Drawn on the 35 years, teacher attrition in Washington state increased by only half a percent at most in any given year, according to a Goldhaber co-author brief this year.
Full-time K-12 teacher departures appear “much less serious and widespread” compared to other types of school employees, according to national data cited by the FiveThirtyEight news site.