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Dr. Marc Gaswirth, a retired public school administrator, has written extensively for nearly 50 years about public sector bargaining and school human resources.
In January 2023, I wrote a column entitled “The New Jersey Teacher Shortage: A Boarder Perspective,” in which I discussed several significant structural reforms needed to more fully address this complex problem.
These included the consolidation of the state’s 600 school districts to reduce the extent to which many school districts now compete against one another for a limited supply of quality teachers especially in highly selective areas; a recognition that societal norms have shifted, allowing women who have long dominated the teacher ranks to pursue other professional careers; the negative impact of collective bargaining agreements historically giving disproportionately higher salary increases to more senior teachers, thus limiting what new teachers can be paid; and generous legal incentives providing paid health benefits after 25 years of service, prompting school employees to retire earlier than they otherwise would.
I also predicted that the task force’s recommendations would turn out largely anodyne and cosmetic, resulting in large part from the diverse, risk averse, and consensus-driven composition of the task force members.
In response to the study group’s recommendations, the Assembly Education Committee released last month a package of bills intended to respond to the state’s teacher shortage focusing primarily on teacher preparation changes and financial supports for aspiring teachers. This move prompted positive press releases from various education interest groups and legislators lauding their efforts to produce a set of proposals likely to breeze through the legislature and wind up quickly on the governor’s desk for his signature — but ultimately will accomplish very little.
Advocates of these proposals can take a victory lap, but whether it is deserved depends on whether these recommendations alone will successfully resolve the current shortage problem. Without serious structural reform, it will take years before any hard evidence surfaces on whether these proposals, individually or as package, produce a larger cohort of quality individuals wishing to join the teaching profession.
Before this legislative package becomes law, it may be wise to first pause and answer some of the questions below that the task force may not have addressed — or perhaps consciously chose not to parry.
- What school district generated data led to the finding that a statewide teacher shortage actually exists?
- What information did the task force examine to determine the scope and depth of current and future shortages? (Note: A 2022 law requiring that a report on teacher workforce projections be released by March 1 has yet to be issued.)
- Is the lack of teacher candidates a quantitative, qualitative problem, or both?
- Assuming a quantitative problem exists, is it due to a lack of candidates applying for certain teaching positions; if so, for which ones?
- If there were sufficient candidates but many were found unsuitable for employment, was it due to their professional unpreparedness, prior employment history, or other factors?
- Assuming a qualitative problem, even in part, what does it say about the selection process and effectiveness of teacher training institutions or the implementation of the state’s alternate route program?
- Any evidence of more acute teacher shortages in urban, rural, or suburban areas; by the size, configuration, and socio-economic status of school districts; or by a school’s identity as traditional, charter, private or parochial?
- Any evidence of greater shortages in districts, for example, with lower starting salaries, larger numbers of students living in impoverished areas with learning and other problems, a perceived lack of professional or administrative support, poor working conditions, or a high staff turnover and retirement rate?
- Based on expected changes in student demographics and enrollment patterns, retirement trends and emerging new areas of study during the next five years, what are the projected estimates of qualified candidates needed in each teaching area?
- Are the proposed financial incentives to relieve future teachers of the costs associated with entering the profession sufficient to entice enough individuals to make teaching their career choice?
- Since females represent the overwhelmingly majority of teachers, what recommendations were made that might encourage more males to enter the profession?
- What specific areas of severe teacher need did the task force identify requiring immediate attention?
- Why are the proposed changes to alleviate the teacher shortage being made legislatively rather than through administrative regulations, which allows greater flexibility should future modifications be needed?
- Has there been any discussion about the impact of labor agreements limiting the starting salaries of new teachers; If not, why not?
- Did the task force address the challenge of 600 diverse school districts drawing from a shallow pool of available teachers in areas of serious need such as in the sciences, math, bi-lingual education, special education, among others, the effect of which allows some district to better serve students than others?
- Once these legislative recommendations are in place, when should the public expect them to substantially lessens or end the purported teacher shortage?
As far as we can tell, the task force met privately and prepared a 27-page detailed and professionally-presented interim report leading so far to the development of the current package of legislative proposals. Disappointedly, the report now embraced by the Assembly Education Committee unsurprisingly avoided the difficult and politically unpalatable issues while perhaps inadvertently creating a rationale that will lower standards and expectations for new teachers
The current teacher shortage offers a great opportunity to examine major reforms needed in the state’s education landscape writ large. Sadly, so far, however, all we have seen is a set of proposals only partially responsive to the problem underscoring a familiar and apt aphorism that, “when all is said and done, more is often said than done.”