Greg Forster, Ph.D. | October 30, 2019

A century of Oklahoma's never-ending teacher shortage

Greg Forster, Ph.D.

“Teacher Shortage in State Predicted” ran the headline of the main newspaper in Oklahoma City. “Teacher Shortage Is Threatening” blared the headline of Tulsa’s paper a year later.

But these headlines aren’t taken from the recent roller-coaster of controversy over teacher shortages in Oklahoma. They ran in 1919 and 1920, in what were then the Daily Oklahoman and the Morning Tulsa Daily World. A review of Oklahoma news databases in the last century helps put all the recent “teacher shortage” headlines in perspective. Decade after decade, the great teacher shortage that will destroy our schools is always predicted, threatening, looming, descending, about to strike.

Our journalists have consistently pushed this narrative, usually in uncritical ways. The story of the looming teacher crisis is not only politically useful to teachers’ unions and other special interests. It’s also appealing to large numbers of readers, both because thousands of readers are themselves direct financial beneficiaries of this story and because it sets up a classic underdog-versus-huge-uncaring-system story that has broad appeal.

Decade after decade, the great teacher shortage that will destroy our schools is always predicted, threatening, looming, descending, about to strike.

Recently, the Oklahoma State School Boards Association released a survey purporting to show that teacher recruitment was still a challenge, even after a series of big education spending increases—and, in particular, a big across-the-board pay raise for teachers. Surveys, of course, are not reliable on a question like this, because the people being surveyed have strong incentives (often unconscious) to answer a certain way. But that didn’t stop news outlets around the state from carrying the story uncritically.

The coverage did not raise obvious questions like: If the huge, indiscriminate across-the-board pay raise that was sold as necessary to recruit teachers in fact had little effect on recruitment, why did we enact it? 

Or: Shouldn’t we tear down the artificial barriers to entry that keep people out of the teaching profession, like useless certification requirements that have consistently failed to show any connection to classroom outcomes?

Or: Shouldn’t we reform the pay scales and contract provisions that prevent us from targeting the best teachers for recruitment and retention? 

No, the implicit takeaway is always more, more, more indiscriminate spending, without systemic reform.

It’s the same today as in 1920, when the Morning Tulsa Daily World turned over its pages to school official J.P. Battenberg so he could lament—not in the opinion section but in the news section—that primary and secondary schools “have not been properly provided for and cannot therefore be expected to compete with their more fortunate friends, the universities and colleges, and supply the country with competently trained teachers.”

It’s eerie how similar 1920s teacher-shortage news is to today’s. The same intellectual bullying: “There is no argument required to show that the schools are losing out.” The same assertions without evidence: “Teachers [are] being forced out of the profession.” The same cockamamie lack of basic economic reasoning: “The man who works with his hands gets double the pay of the man who works with his brains. The bricklayer who builds the schoolhouse is paid far more than the teacher who molds and builds the lives of those coming American citizens who occupy it.”

Nor did this happen only in 1920. “State Feeling Sharp Teacher Pinch Again” ran a Daily Oklahoman headline in 1964. Bear in mind that at that point, the U.S. had 25 students per teacher, whereas today it has 16. (State-specific data aren’t easily available that far back, and neither are national data for 1920.)

That story patiently explained that teacher shortages are cyclical. They happen every few years. Oklahoma was supposedly headed into a down portion of the cycle in 1964.

So a few years later there should be a surplus, right? Alas. “Teacher Shortage Disturbs Officials” ran a headline in the same newspaper in 1966. “Grant May Ease Teacher Shortage” came a more hopeful headline in 1969.

By 1966, the every-few-years cycle that had been so important in 1964 had vanished. “The most critical teacher shortage in a decade confronts the classrooms of the United States at the start of the new school year,” declared another story, running a week after the headline quoted above. “The scarcity, which is reported from Maine to California, has taken local school systems and state education officials by surprise—after several years of steady improvement in the supply of teachers.” That story was run directly off a national wire service, with no attempt to reconcile its narrative with the paper’s reporting about Oklahoma.

The Daily Oklahoman did go off-message at one point in 1970, and appears to have been brought sharply back into line. Someone—remember, data and careful economic reasoning are not important factors in these stories—got the clever idea to argue that as the “baby boomers” graduated from teaching school, there would be a surplus of teachers, and that would make it the perfect moment to undertake a huge new movement to improve (and spend more money on) the schools. Scott Tuxhorn, state superintendent of public instruction, was quoted: “We are going to end up with teachers who cannot find a job.”

“There seems little doubt that, if present trends continue, graduates with teaching certificates will greatly outnumber the positions which await them in the near future,” the story declared. Oklahoma, we were now told, had always produced too many teachers—more than it could employ, such that it had always been a net exporter of teachers!—and thus the state had been “virtually bypassed by the national teacher shortage.” Readers with memories longer than those of gnats must have been disturbed by this editorial about-face compared to the stories in 1964, 1966, and 1969.

Apparently the guardians of the education status quo were also disturbed. A month later, The Daily Oklahoman ran a news story effectively taking it all back. The story consisted of nothing but quote after quote after quote from Oklahoma State University Dean of Education Helmer Sorenson. “There’s no question about it, we still have a shortage of what we would call well-qualified teachers,” declared Sorenson. “Teacher Shortage Cited” ran the headline. And thus was order restored to the universe.

There was no real evidence of a teacher shortage in Oklahoma even before the recent indiscriminate pay increases. A 2015 study commissioned by a partnership of state agencies, including the Oklahoma Department of Education, found that the imbalance between teacher supply and demand in the state was trivial—less than a percentage point out of alignment. 

Advocates claim that large numbers of teachers getting approval to teach through alternative processes—hysterically mislabeled as “emergency certifications”—is evidence of a shortage. It isn’t; it can just as easily be taken as evidence that Oklahoma’s standard teacher-certification system is broken and can’t be relied upon to get teachers into classrooms. But even if this were evidence of a teacher shortage, the consistent failure of indiscriminate pay raises to make any dent in the problem should direct us to more promising policy solutions, such as removing arbitrary barriers to entry and using targeted rather than indiscriminate recruitment and retention approaches.

I’ve been in education reform since 2002, and there has never been a time when there wasn’t a supposed teacher shortage, either present or just around the corner. So I wasn’t surprised when I found, in Oklahoma’s newspaper archives, the same chorus being sung for a century. Maybe it’s time for a new tune. 

Greg Forster, Ph.D.


Greg Forster (Ph.D., Yale University) is a Friedman Fellow with EdChoice. He has conducted numerous empirical studies on education issues, including school choice, accountability testing, graduation rates, student demographics, and special education. The author of nine books and the co-editor of six books, Dr. Forster has also written numerous articles in peer-reviewed academic journals, as well as in popular publications such as The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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