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General teacher shortage in LA illusory

Claims of a Louisiana teacher shortage rest in the eyes of the beholder.

Amid a nationwide decline in the number of teachers entering the profession, in Louisiana that has raised enough concern to produce talk of convening a legislative investigation into reversing that trend. This comes as state educational authorities (typically school districts, but also including charter schools and special state schools) continue to have difficulty in attracting science, math, and special education teachers, particularly in rural areas.

But, in reality, in most other ways Louisiana teacher supply has remained healthy and its quality has improved. Understanding how this has happened, especially in light of dramatic reforms passed in 2012 to spur accountability and thus higher quality, leads to what actions, if any, the state must take to ensure sufficient refreshment of its teaching corps.

Since academic year 2010-11, three years before reforms began to take effect, students completing teacher preparation programs has fallen 18 percent. Some facilely blame those very reforms, which made it more difficult to attain tenure and raised standards in part by turning more fully to objective performance measurements, as well as pay rising slowly for the allegedly underpaid profession.

Data confirm neither speculation. In 2016, the typical teacher in Louisiana made almost $50,000 a year – most working only 9 or 10 months – over $6,000 higher than the average per capita income of a state working resident, most of whom work year round. That ranked 34th among the states. Pay rose year-over-year the 30th most. These numbers indicate a healthy pay environment both compared to the population as a whole and relative to others states.

The proportional decrease in completing teacher training actually was less than the nation’s as a whole, comprised of some states also pumping up quality but others that stood pat. During this period, Louisiana has kept its foot on the gas pedal, churning out strong accountability plans that also increase standards over time. Logically, if the reforms proved so discouraging, the numbers wanting to enter the profession would have fallen further than the national average.

At the other end, except for the first couple of years after the reforms’ enactment that showed a significant increase, retirements have held steady. Thus, except for washing out likely inferior teachers close to retirement who didn’t want to elevate their games given the option of leaving the profession with a good pension, the reforms haven’t contributed to any perceived shortage.

This fretting also belies the fact that the number of public school teachers in the state has increased from about 47,000 in 2011 to well over 58,000 in 2016, or 24 percent. As enrollment went from around 702,000 to nearly 719,000 in that span, the teacher/student ratio actually fell from about 15:1 to under 12.5:1.

And, the falling number of nascent teachers could see a reversal on the way after another, recent, reform. Internships have lengthened to a year, better preparing incoming teachers to the realities of the profession – a change largely driven by student requests. Feeling better able to tackle the real world challenges in running a classroom could remove an obstacle in the mind of some prospective teachers that will encourage them to enter and complete training.

Therefore, it’s hard to argue that there’s a general teacher shortage in Louisiana at this time, and harder still to convince that reform and pay issues have caused that. The specific shortages in certain areas and geographies make more sense connected to pay – it’s a good bet that STEM private sector jobs pay much better than salaries for STEM teachers and salaries are higher in urban areas – but not for the overall picture.

You don’t need a study to understand that. Getting a handle on the larger national trends that may impact enrollment in teacher preparation programs likely will yield more useful policy-making information than a panel barking up the wrong tree on reform and pay issues.

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