Tukwila, Washington, is a working-class suburb just south of Seattle where three-quarters of young people in the city’s schools are low-income and about two-thirds are people of color. Most families rent apartments rather than own homes.
Two months into the school year, the 2,800-student district is seeking an extra cafeteria worker, two additional bus drivers and four paraeducators – meaning the school system is operating at about 7% below capacity for those roles. Periodically, district administrators have had to fill in as substitute teachers and the transportation director, normally a desk position, has been forced to drive bus routes.
“The impact of a staffing shortage feels more severe this year than it has in the past,” Tukwila human resources director Aaron Draganov told the 74, noting that the district recently saw an “unusually high number of retirements”, especially in transportation.
But just a few miles to the northeast, on Mercer Island, the story is completely different.
Located between Seattle and Bellevue in a community that is home to a Microsoft co-founder and numerous retired pro athletes, Mercer Island school district has largely avoided such staffing woes. According to Zillow, typical home values in Mercer land around $2m.
“We are not experiencing the same struggles as other districts,” the executive director of human resources, Erin Battersby, told the 74. More than 98% of support staff roles in the 4,500-student district are filled, according to data she provided.
The contrasting circumstances in the two school systems represent a fissure in staffing patterns well beyond the Seattle area.
During a school year marked by fears of K-12 labor shortages – with nationwide reports of principals driving bus routes, superintendents filling in as substitute teachers and school cafeterias forgoing hot meals due to a lack of workers – a new analysis out of Washington state quantifies the depth of disparities in teacher and staff vacancy rates between high- and low-poverty school systems.
The research, published on 9 November as a working paper by the Center for Education Data and Research, combed through the job postings listed this fall in three-quarters of Washington school districts, which account for 98% of all students in the state.
Poorer districts were in need of paraeducators – someone who provides instructional support to students under a teacher’s supervision – and transportation workers at roughly twice and three times the rates, respectively, of their more affluent counterparts, the analysis revealed. They were also seeking a higher share of janitors, nurses, special educators and teachers for English language learners, among other roles – posing yet another setback for the very students most in need of catching up on learning missed during the pandemic.
“The shortages are breaking along existing lines of disparity,” Dan Goldhaber, a University of Washington education economist who co-authored the analysis, told the 74.
The data flush out an emerging nationwide picture of school staffing that previously included little systematic accounting of districts’ on-the-ground conditions, instead relying on local anecdotes and high-level numbers from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The research shows teachers for special education and English learning programs were the most sought-after instructional roles, while districts reported that they most needed teacher assistants and athletic coaches as support staff.
Before the pandemic, public K-12 education employed about 8 million workers, according to federal data, but that number fell to a low of 7.3 million during the first half of the 2020-21 school year. The count has since rebounded to about 7.7 million.
Last year, schools that went remote often didn’t need as many bus drivers, janitors or other support roles, explained Chad Aldeman, policy director of Georgetown University’s Edunomics Lab and a leading voice in critiquing coverage and public perception of school staffing shortages. Now, as districts bring those roles back, they have to compete with mega-employers, such as Amazon and Uber.
This is a “very competitive hiring season”, he said. “It’s definitely an applicant’s market in the sense of, they can be kind of choosy in where they want to go.”
Some of the nation’s largest districts reported hundreds of unfilled positions as of late October. Palm Beach county schools told the 74 that they had 1,044 vacancies, including for 351 teachers. Hillsborough county public schools, which includes Tampa Bay, reported 1,274 openings, 432 of which were teaching roles. And Chicago public schools said it was still hiring for over 3,400 staff, including 680 teachers.
More affluent districts may have an easier time filling positions because salaries are generally higher and the work is seen as less stressful. But the reasons behind the number of vacancies across the board remain unclear. With a huge federal windfall landing on districts’ doorsteps thanks to $122bn for schools in the American Rescue Plan passed in March of this year, many districts are hiring for new positions in efforts to lower class sizes.
“We don’t have a good sense of the cause of the job openings,” said Aldeman. “Is it because the high-poverty districts can’t find people, or is it that they’re able to hire more right now?”
But the disparities in vacancy rates worry Tequilla Brownie, executive vice-president of The New Teacher Project. She knows that when under-resourced schools have high shares of empty positions, it can translate into long-lasting instructional deficits for poor students.
Research from her organization found that, in Arkansas, where teachers are in short supply statewide, students in high-poverty districts were more likely to be taught by uncertified teachers. Black students were five times more likely than white students to attend school in a high-shortage district.
Some districts, however, appear to have broken the mold. In Dallas, teachers receive extra compensation – sometimes netting more than $100,000 a year – to work in high-poverty schools. The incentive seems to have helped keep educators around: the district estimates just a 17% turnover rate from this past year, down from as high as 23% in 2015 (though the most recent figure is slightly up from its 14% rate in 2020).
When schools are short on staff, it’s the families and teachers who feel the effects, said Annette Anderson, deputy director of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Safe and Healthy Schools.
The K-12 expert is also a mother of three students in the Baltimore City public school system. Recently, her eighth-grade daughter reported that her sixth-grade cousin had been in her class that day. The youngsters’ cohorts had been merged due to lack of staff.
“That’s a concern for me, because that means my daughter is not getting the level of instruction that she should in her classroom,” the Baltimore mother told the 74.
“It’s not the teacher’s fault,” Anderson said. She empathizes as a former classroom teacher and principal. “It’s not the fault of the administrator, who’s trying to figure it out in the zero hour.
“That’s a process and a policy issue,” she said.
This report was first published by the 74, a non-profit, nonpartisan news site covering education in America
Source : https://www.theguardian.com/education/2021/nov/18/us-school-staff-shortages-high-poverty-districts-study1261