Superintendent Tom Hunter grew worried this summer when he realized that fewer people were applying to become teachers in his rural district, Greensburg.

In one extreme instance, a high school teaching position that he said would have drawn 100 applications a few years ago yielded just three. Overall, the district was scrambling to fill jobs weeks after it would have finished hiring in the past.

“We had about 20 positions that we filled this summer, probably more than half of those in the last couple weeks before school started,” Hunter said. “That’s really, really uncharacteristic of what our normal hiring procedure would be.”

An hour or so north in the suburbs of Indianapolis, Scott Robison’s district, Zionsville, was encountering hiring challenges of its own. But Robison, who has been with the district for nearly a decade, said the difficulty seemed to arise from a new twist on a longstanding problem.

“The hiring cycle for prime teaching candidates who are in subjects that are traditionally hard to get seems to be moving earlier,” Robison said. “And so for those of us who start real early in August, there are many [districts] that start in July now, that may have some effect on the pool.”

The two stories illustrate what’s wrong with the narrative that there are too few teachers to fill Indiana’s classrooms this fall, an idea currently grabbing headlines and spurring officials into action. Instead, in Indiana, as in many other places, the problem isn’t the number of certified teachers but a mismatch between them and available jobs. And the situation isn’t as bad or out of the ordinary as recent media coverage has suggested.

The first alarm bells went off when Greensburg’s newspaper reported last month about a sharp decline in the number of new teachers earning first-time teaching licenses in 2014. The follow-up stories painted an even more dismal story, pointing to teachers’ dissatisfaction with the state’s education policy agenda and to declining enrollment in teaching programs. One even reported that the number of students pursuing teacher training had fallen to zero at some Indiana colleges.

Some of the stories were just wrong: The bottomed-out education school enrollment reflected changes in federal reporting rules, not actual enrollment patterns. Others overstated the shifts. And few looked at what researchers say is the real impediment to maintaining a strong supply of teachers — retaining existing educators, rather than minting new ones.

A closer look teacher licensure data from a federal report and the state department of education reveals that while the number of new teachers receiving first-time licenses has fallen in recent years, the actual decline has been small. New-teacher licenses have fallen by just 6 percent since 2008 or 18.5 percent since 2009, when young adults shut out of other work because of the recession might have had greater incentive to become teachers.

Teachers from the enormous baby boomer generation are also now between the ages of 49 and 68, prime retirement years, and they are increasingly leaving the classroom.

Taken together, those shifts could look like a big problem to someone judging Indiana’s teacher supply just by those numbers. But the state is adding teachers in other ways, including by more often issuing “emergency licenses” to educators making career changes. Plus, first-time teachers make up only one-fifth of the new teachers entering Indiana classrooms each year, as educators who have stepped away for a variety of reasons return.

Overall, the state’s teaching force has been stable for more than a decade, according to federal data.

Data source: National Center for Education Statistics
Credits: Sarah Glen & Shaina Cavazos/Chalkbeat

Plus, “a decline is not necessarily a shortage,” notes Dan Goldhaber, the director of the Center for Education Data and Research at the University of Washington, who calls the teacher shortage narrative “lore” that has rarely ever been true.

“I am skeptical that there is a national shortage,” he said. “It’s clear that some school systems have a hard time recruiting teachers. But it’s also the case that over the last couple decades, we’ve produced two to three times as many elementary education teachers as there are available slots every year.”

Indiana appears to face a similar dynamic. Changing federal reporting requirements for colleges make using teaching program data difficult at best and misleading at worst. But Indiana’s job bank, which school districts can, but do not have to, use to list open positions, contained about 600 jobs, and the state licensed more than 4,000 first-year teachers last year.

Schools across the 11 Marion County school districts that serve the city of Indianapolis don’t have large numbers of unfilled positions — and there’s evidence that they’re in better shape than in the recent past.

With more than 2,000 teaching jobs, for example, IPS had just 44 unfilled jobs as of Aug. 17, and only 25 of those are classroom teachers, according to district spokeswoman Kristin Cutler. Just before the school year started, the district had 69 open teaching jobs, compared to 117 at the same time last year.

The rest of the county’s school districts posted only 27 jobs for full-time, non-temporary classroom teaching positions as of last week. The two wealthiest Marion County districts, Franklin Township and Beech Grove, had just one opening for a teacher between them.

So how to explain the experience of superintendents such as Hunter, who say they can’t easily find qualified teachers to fill their open jobs?

“You can’t say whether it is a supply or demand issue across the board,” Goldhaber said. “It really varies depending on the school and the kind of teacher that we are looking for.”

Indeed, hiring seems to be toughest for schools in areas of Indiana that some teachers view as less desirable to work in, such as isolated rural communities and high-poverty urban neighborhoods. Jobs that require more schooling or specialized skills, such as science, math and special education teaching jobs, are also harder to fill — but that’s nothing new.

“Even ten years ago when I first came to Zionsville it was difficult to hire certain areas,” Robison said. “Science, math and special education have always been more difficult than other areas.”

In IPS, most of the open elementary school positions are at schools rated a D or F by the state. At the high school level, the jobs are spread between magnet and neighborhood schools, but usually in career tech and positions that require knowledge of science, math, or foreign language.

Carol Hofer, a teacher at Fox Hill Elementary School, works with English learners in a small group lesson. Teachers with special skills such as an English learner certification are harder for district's to recruit.
PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Carol Hofer, a teacher at Fox Hill Elementary School, works with English learners in a small group lesson. Teachers with special skills such as an English learner certification are harder for districts to recruit.

The persistent challenge of filling jobs in those areas is one reason that districts would be smart to find ways to keep the educators they have, said Richard Ingersoll, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania who studies teacher workforce trends.

“It’s sort of foolish,” Ingersoll said. “Here you have these people who are really good, and the state can’t make any efforts to retain them. Instead, they recruit newbies.”

Some states and districts have tried to use pay incentives to keep qualified teachers in place. That idea hasn’t been on the table in Indiana, where pay is relatively low and Indianapolis teachers just won their first raise in five years. But in addition to being expensive, those incentives might not tackle the issues that Ingersoll says most frequently drive teachers to leave their classrooms. He has found that work conditions are the most important consideration for teachers who are deciding whether to stay in the profession.

In Indiana, rapidly changing expectations for educators have unsettled working conditions for teachers in recent years. Political battles over education policy put schools under scrutiny and induced a rapid transition to tougher academic standards — and consequences for not meeting them.

That shift caused Ashley Maloff, a 25-year-old academic advisor at Purdue University, to abandon her plans to become a special education teacher. As a student teacher, she bristled at the limits placed on her in the classroom.

“It just became less fun and more like I was constantly checking myself, not knowing if you were going to have a job the next year if your kids don’t pass the test,” Maloff said. “In special education, that’s huge because most kids aren’t reading or writing at grade level.”

Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, believes fewer teachers would leave the profession if they felt like they had support from legislators and other state leaders.

“There really is a climate that’s been created, and we have to look at the climate and figure out how to fix it,” Meredith said. “Who cares what the data says because when you have administrators who don’t have applicants before the first day of school, there’s a shortage, end of story.”

Alarmed by the specter of a teacher shortage, Indiana State Board of Education member Gordon Hendry said his plan to offer top students who choose to study education four years of free college tuition if they commit to teaching at least four years in Indiana schools will address problems of both recruiting and retaining good teachers.

A teacher helps a student during classroom instruction at McClelland Elementary School. Colleges produce two to three times as many elementary school teachers as there are open jobs for them each year.
PHOTO: Allen Underwood, Courtesy of Wayne Township Schools
A teacher helps a student during classroom instruction at McClelland Elementary School. Colleges produce two to three times as many elementary school teachers as there are open jobs for them each year, one researcher said.

Whether the $4.5 million proposal will gain traction remains to be seen. Hendry said he expects lawmakers to discuss it at a special committee meeting next month.

Legislators also took a pass earlier this year when two bills went nowhere that were designed to offer extra pay to teachers who complete National Board Certification, a rigorous evaluation of how a teacher teaches, in exchange for agreeing to mentor others.

Indiana’s legislative and education leaders might ultimately be trying to solve the wrong problem if they decide to adopt a plan that is about recruitment rather than one that rewards long-standing teachers and improves working conditions.

“Almost every president since Eisenhower has given a speech on teacher shortage … we’ve spent umpteen dollars trying to fix this over the last half-century,” Ingersoll said. “But this is the wrong diagnosis and the wrong prescription … It’s not an under-supply, it’s too much turnover.”