Solving the Teacher Shortage Crisis: How Some Countries are Working to It

Miki Aristorenas
by Miki Aristorenas

Throughout the summer of 2018, we saw story after story describing how U.S. teachers often work multiple jobs in order to make ends meet. The September 24th cover of TIME magazine read: “I work 3 jobs and donate blood plasma to pay the bills. I’m a teacher in America.” This TIME cover story chronicled the experience of four teachers from across the country dealing with financial hardship. Elsewhere, Alia Wong of The Atlantic wrote about a new report showing that one in 10 Airbnb hosts in the United States is a teacher renting out rooms in their home for supplemental income.

This follows a tumultuous spring rife with teacher strikes and protests across multiple states focused largely on lagging compensation. NCEE President and CEO Marc Tucker wrote in his blog that the only question around the work actions and strikes was why it took teachers so long. With stories of teachers struggling to keep their families above the poverty line, with some not having had a raise in over a decade, it’s no wonder districts and schools across the country have struggled to fill empty teaching positions with qualified staff at the start of this school year.

To exacerbate the problem, applications to teachers colleges have been falling for some time now and highly skilled teachers are leaving the profession before retirement age. In response, some state legislatures have waived the already low standards for obtaining a license to teach. While some American states and districts have responded to shortages by bringing unqualified and unprepared individuals into the profession, some of the world’s top-performing education systems are taking a different tack to combat teacher shortages – and a few others have figured out how to prevent them entirely.

Addressing Teacher Shortages: Targeted Investments, Higher Pay

British Columbia

Several provinces across Canada are reporting widespread teacher shortages, including Quebec, Ontario, British Columbia and Nunavut Territories. In British Columbia, along with the high cost of living in Vancouver, the difficulty of attracting teachers to rural parts of the province is thought to be a large part of the problem. In response, the government has allocated CAN$1.6 million (US$1.23 million) toward helping rural districts in teacher application management, coordination of national and international recruitment, and creating local incentives to help cover relocation expenses, transitional housing, and professional development. The British Columbia Teachers Council, which has the responsibility of approving any new teacher education program and ensuring that programs meet provincial standards, is currently reviewing the provincial standards after gathering input from teaching candidates, current teachers, school leaders, parents and the public. The Ministry of Education has also supported the teachers’ union to oversee a New Teachers Mentoring Project for the past five years.

China

China News Service reported recently that the number of rural teachers in the country is declining, having gone from 4.7 million in 2010 to 3.3 million in 2013, at least in part due to the low pay of rural teachers. The Chinese government has enacted several measures to attract and retain more rural teachers — including enlisting retirees or soon-to-retire teachers for one-year assignments in rural schools and even free education for teacher trainees who commit to working in rural areas for a certain period. To address the issue of compensation more broadly, in 2015 the government announced a plan to raise rural teachers’ salaries to the level of their urban counterparts by 2020.  And in one of China’s largest provinces, Shanghai’s teacher career ladder serves as a strong means of elevating the status of teaching by providing a rewarding professional career trajectory to current and aspiring students.

Estonia

In Estonia, teaching traditionally has not been viewed as a high-status or high-paying field. By 2000 the country faced shortages in several areas with salaries lower than those of other high-status professions. According to a report by Estonian Public Broadcasting, as many as 15% of schools were looking for math teachers. Additionally, there has been a perception that teaching is not a viable long-term career and many new teachers are switching tracks to other jobs after as little as a year of teaching. Policymakers over the last decade have worked to combat this dynamic by proposing new roles and responsibilities for teachers, raising the requirements for entry into teacher preparation, improving teacher preparation content to better align with more challenging curriculum, and raising teacher salaries. Fully aligning teachers’ salaries with the earnings for full-time workers with similar levels of education by 2020 is a key goal of Estonia’s most recent national strategic plan, the Estonian Lifelong Learning Strategy 2020.

Netherlands

Teacher shortages in the Netherlands have been attributed to perceptions of low-prestige and the reality of lower pay for primary school teachers. In response, the new government coalition in 2017 announced that it would halve tuition fees for the first two years of primary teaching training, which typically lasts four years. Dutch policymakers are also making efforts to elevate the overall standard of primary teacher preparation programs by offering them only through research universities rather than the current system of universities of applied sciences. The ministry has enacted new regulations to make entry into teacher preparation programs harder which resulted in a one year dip in enrollments.  However, 2018 saw a 30 percent increase in applications to teacher training programs. These efforts dovetail with the ministry’s strategic plan, The Teachers Agenda 2013-2020, which recommended seven key agenda items including raising entry requirements for teacher training programs.

Preventing Shortages Altogether: Valuing Teachers, Redesigning Schools

While some top performers face similar challenges filling teaching positions as we find in the United States, many face no shortage whatsoever. We look to Finland and Singapore to understand why this particular challenge is not one they face.

Annual national opinion polls in Finland have repeatedly shown that teaching is the country’s most admired profession, and primary school teaching is the most sought-after career. The attractiveness of the profession is largely attributable to the competitive selection process—it was harder to gain entry to the University of Helsinki’s teacher education program than the law program or the medical school in 2016— the work itself, the working conditions, and respect for teachers. Being at the frontier of curriculum design to support creativity and innovation, Finland has developed an attractive job in the image of other high-status professions where teachers have the space to be autonomous, collaborate with their colleagues, and engage in educational research, development and design.

Singapore

Teaching is a highly attractive profession in Singapore thanks to starting salaries that are on par with those of accountants and engineers in the civil service and free teacher education—with pre-service teachers actually receiving a salary during preparation and funding for books and computers. In combination with high-quality induction for new teachers and a robust, three-track career ladder that builds and rewards educator expertise across their careers, teaching in Singapore is a valued and desirable profession. Because the profession is highly respected, Singapore recruits its teachers from the top third of high school graduates calculating each year the number of teachers it will need and only opening that many spots in the training programs. On average, only one out of eight applicants for admission to the teacher education programs is accepted. With more teachers, schools have been able to reduce class sizes at lower primary levels to about 30 pupils and give teachers more time to develop themselves professionally. Singapore’s Ministry of Education also closely monitors the supply and demand of teachers and works hand-in-glove with the National Institute of Education, Singapore’s sole teacher education institution, to meet schools’ needs.

Many high-performing systems that are combatting shortages similar to those of the United States are raising standards for admission to teacher education programs, raising the rigor of pre-service teacher education programs, providing more support for new teachers and paying their teachers on par with high-status professions. For more on these successful strategies, see NCEE’s Empowered Educators, the landmark study of teacher quality led by Linda Darling-Hammond.

The United States would be well served studying systems such as Finland and Singapore that are not facing teacher shortages to begin with. These systems have moved to a professional model of teaching and of school work organization, where teachers take the lead in designing curriculum, collaborating and supporting their peers, and ultimately driving the performance of their entire schools, that the United States has yet to embrace. It may be that simply paying teachers more will not in itself suffice. States across the country will have to take a system-wide approach to build and implement this new professional model where teachers are treated as high-status professionals from the minute they enter the profession to the day they retire from our nation’s schools.