Teachers’ stories make data more meaningful

This report demonstrates that dramatic changes in our nation’s teaching force will soon lead to serious shortages of qualified teachers unless policies that restructure the teaching profession are pursued.

These words are not from today — but from 33 years ago when the RAND Corporation released the powerful and compelling research findings of a young yet already highly-accomplished scholar on America’s shortage of qualified teachers and the “coming crisis in teaching.” The 1984 RAND report, penned by Linda Darling-Hammond, hauntingly mirrors the findings of the 2017 investigation into today’s teacher shortages by the Learning Policy Institute (her new R&D organization), caused for the most part by high rates of attrition from the classroom. In 1984, Linda wrote that the “lack of input into professional decision-making, overly restrictive bureaucratic controls and inadequate supports for teaching contribute to teacher dissatisfaction and attrition, particularly among the most highly qualified members of the teaching force.” The same conclusions are found in LPI’s current report. Drawing on more varied databases, the LPI research unpacks more clearly how teacher turnover undermines student achievement — and how children of color and those living in low income communities are far more likely to be taught by inexperienced, underprepared teachers.

Education historians, like James Fraser and David Labaree, have pointed out that policymakers in the past have been more likely to hire under-qualified and out-of-field teachers in times of shortages rather than making deeper investments in the teaching profession. However, since the 1980s, a number of states have financed a set of increasingly coherent policy solutions to address teacher shortages. For example, California and North Carolina enacted policies and programs that fueled higher overall salaries, service scholarships, more extensive clinical training, mentoring for novices, and incentives for experienced teachers to earn National Board Certification. Granted, these policies have not been sustained for a host of political and economic reasons, but evidence was mounting that they were making a positive difference in building a more stable and qualified teacher workforce before they were abandoned (see 2017 Kappan article by Patrick Shields and me where we “revisited the lessons learned”).

The severity of the teacher shortage problem is real and visceral. Just search for and read the local news accounts of desperate school boards and superintendents in search of qualified teachers — those who know how to teach increasingly diverse students and are able to stay around long enough to make a difference as a team.

Nevertheless, a number of other think tanks — such as NCTQ and the 74 — have questioned the shortage evidence, suggesting that policy, business, and education leaders should not be “frightened” by the high teacher turnover rates. They try to make the case that teacher turnover is inevitable; other fields also have high attrition rates, and only a fraction of the teacher workforce, such as those in high demand fields like math and science, deserve a pay raise.

The critique by groups like NCTQ and the 74 ignore the reality of our nation’s schools of today — and tomorrow. For example, as school systems seek to provide personalized, competency-based learning (see Profile of the South Carolina Graduate), the need exists for highly-skilled teachers who know their students and families well. School communities are going to need more career teachers, not fewer, in the future. In addition, the teacher shortage skeptics are ignoring that teachers will need to know and be able to do more. Local communities, not distant policy analysts, need the resources and flexibility to invest in the kinds of teachers they need — including science teachers who can teach physics and coding as well as social studies teachers who can lead school-community partnerships and English teachers who are experts in building virtual communities of professional practice.

The teacher shortage deniers remind me of those who deny climate change — seeking alternative explanations that might bolster their predetermined policy proclivities while ignoring the kind of conditions under which teachers teach and while our world is getting warmer.

There is a rich literature on why people reject scientific facts, even those generated from the most rigorous academic studies (such as the peer reviewed RAND and LPI studies). Scholars such as Dan Kahan submit that climate change deniers often have different cultural values (e.g., more individualistic) than those who can readily embrace the facts (e.g. more communitarian). And science journalist Chris Mooney points out that as humans our “reasoning is actually suffused with emotion” and we often exercise “fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators, but to data itself.”

I am certain some teacher shortage skeptics will continue to exercise their fight or flight reflexes to the evidence assembled by LPI and the policy strategies that can address different contexts and needs based on where turnover rates vary and why they do so. I am also certain that the vast majority of American people, where three in four have trust and have confidence in their public school teachers, would promote more investments by their government in teaching in order to ensure their children are not taught by under-prepared and itinerant classroom practitioners. Doing so will require a deeper level of engagement of the public – not just with the erudite evidence surfaced by research organizations such as LPI but also with the stories from classrooms.

We know now more than ever that it is the story that moves people, not just the evidence. As Annette Simmons (author of The Story Factor) notes, “facts don’t have the power to change someone’s story” but a “new story (can) let your facts in.”  Once we know our audiences and the stories they have in their heads, she claims, narratives can shift, allowing new information to be received.

Earlier this past fall, one of our CTQ Collab storytellers from the classroom, Justin Minkel, a former Teach for America recruit and now an NBCT in his 14th year of teaching, wrote a piece: Cracking the teacher recruitment and retention code. Justin teaches in a rural Arkansas school serving students who are all (ok 99%) from very low income homes but are taught by teachers who do not leave teaching. That is right. Zero turnover. And it is about the conditions of teaching as well as a superintendent who works hard at making sure every teacher is paid as well as possible.

Justin’s blog tallied 16,000 page views in just one week; he is now a leader in CTQ’s efforts to help other teachers use their own character-driven stories to help unpack evidence and make data more meaningful to the public and policy leaders.

Educator storytellers are helping us understand and use turnover data to reinvent teaching and invest in teachers — especially as students need far more skilled teachers than the schools of the 1980s required. Watch for stories over the next several months as part of a blogging roundtable led by CTQ and LPI. We hope you’ll join the discussion to inform the policy solutions our schools and students richly deserve and need.


Barnett’s post is part of a roundtable blogging discussion sharing educators’ stories on our nation’s teacher shortage. We want to hear your thoughts! Join the conversation by commenting on and sharing this blog and by reading the other blogs in this series. Follow CTQ on Facebook and Twitter to see when each new blog is posted and use #CTQCollab to join the discussion on social media.