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May 22, 2022

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In Washington schools, some jobs are harder to fill than others

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It’s clear that help is wanted in many Washington state schools.

In Seattle, dozens of bus routes were suspended indefinitely in the absence of enough drivers. To keep the coronavirus in check, paraeducators and teachers are taking on new lunch safety duties. An apparent lack of substitute teachers in the state’s largest school districts forced one-day closures around Veterans Day. And educators say they’re burning out.

News coverage and government officials have pointed to labor shortages made worse by the pandemic, and even warned of a mass exodus of teachers. Forty percent of superintendents around the country surveyed by the newsmagazine Education Week reported their staffing shortages were “severe” or “very severe.”

“We know we’re real thin everywhere,” state Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal said in an interview last month.

But there’s more to the story, said University of Washington education researcher Dan Goldhaber, who has studied teacher employment trends for more than a decade. His research suggests that some education jobs are harder to fill than others.

This fall, Goldhaber and another researcher collected data from the websites of almost all Washington state school districts for job listings twice a week between late September and late October, analyzing more than 6,500 different jobs advertised.

They found jobs for people with teaching licenses made up just 11% of the more than 6,500 postings across the state. The most highly sought-after school employees were paraeducators, who in most cases are working with kids with disabilities.

Within teaching, the researchers’ findings, published in a report last month, showed trends that have existed for decades, including that teachers working in special education were in the highest demand. Those workers had nearly double the number of postings compared to elementary school postings, even though the latter is listed as the teaching area with the greatest shortage by the state’s Professional Educator Standards Board. (Special education is listed as second.)

The report also found that the number of postings was higher in low-income districts and in rural areas, where it has always been more difficult to staff people.

“If we’re reporting … that everything is painful, it’s possible people don’t get the right message,” said Goldhaber. Focusing on the pressure points is important for crafting the right solutions, he said.

Asked of Goldhaber’s findings, Reykdal acknowledged that there are positions that have always been harder to fill. But he defended the state’s position that there are staff shortages across the board.

“I may not disagree with it being a historical issue, but now it’s very acute,” he said, pointing to the number of emergency teaching requests the state has received.

Within the first two months of school, the state issued nearly 2,000 emergency certificates, which allow people who haven’t met the state’s teacher licensing standards to lead a classroom. That’s nearly half the number the state issued for the entirety of the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years. Those are the numbers the state examines when determining where there are shortages.

Goldhaber doesn’t disagree with using this number to draw conclusions about shortages; he has used that data himself. But when those numbers are weighted against other factors, the disparities in need become more apparent.

One of the factors is how many people a school district typically hires in a given job category. It makes sense, for example, that there are more requests for emergency elementary school teachers than for special educators; there are just more of the former working in schools than the latter.

The report takes this difference into account. Even though there are double the number of postings for special educators as there are for elementary teachers, the vacancy rate for special educators is eight times higher than for elementary school teachers.

“There is no doubt in my mind that it’s harder to hire people now than it was last year, but it’s also that special education is harder to staff. If you treat things like they are all the same … you’re going with a solution that is a mile wide and an inch deep,” he said.

One potential solution: create a salary incentive for hard-to-fill positions, Goldhaber said.

That idea is unpopular among teachers unions, which prefer a pay scale based on teaching experience. Reykdal says he supports the idea that some teacher candidates with experience in another industry, such as tech, should be able to start out at a higher point on the pay scale. A change like that would be decided in bargaining between school districts and unions. He said he would consider encouraging districts to create incentives like this if the “research is clear we need to do something different.”

There were some trends that Goldhaber and his team couldn’t study or place into context, including the historical trends of nonteaching positions such as bus drivers — there just isn’t a ton of existing data on those jobs. Data on substitute teachers — another high-demand position — is also scarce.

As for the causes of the staffing crunches we’re seeing right now, it’s hard to say. Some research suggests school districts have added more staff positions, such as COVID-19 safety monitors, which creates the need to hire more people.

For others, such as bus drivers, it could be that many quit because of the vaccine mandate or because they were demanding better pay and stable work.

A few national surveys have warned of a mass exodus of teachers and other workers this year because of burnout. But it’s hard to get real-time data on how many teachers have left. Neither the state nor researchers have that information.

Teacher attrition is inversely related to unemployment rates, research has found. When the rate of joblessness is high, fewer teachers quit their jobs. Plotted over the past 35 years, teacher attrition in Washington state has only increased by half a percent at the most in a given year, according to a brief Goldhaber co-authored this year.

Departures of full-time K-12 teachers appear “far less severe and widespread” compared with other types of school employees, according to national data cited by news website FiveThirtyEight.

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