WILL Blog | Flanders: Where have all the teachers gone?

A little knowledge can be a useful thing as long as its limitations are kept in mind. A case in point is a recent report by Public Policy Forum shows that the number of teachers in the region has declined since 2009 and that the teaching workforce has gotten younger over the past four years.  While PPF’s claims for its work are modest, others have not been so circumspect, arguing that the report supports that we do something – anything—as long as it involves spending more money. The first thing to recognize is that the decline identified by PPF is small once you put it in perspective. The number of students in Metro Milwaukee has declined from 237,127 in 2009 to 236,205 in 2013 while the number of teachers in the region has declined from 15,111 to 14,411.  While a loss of 700 teachers may sound staggering, in terms of the teacher-to-student ratio, the change is only from a teacher for every 15.69 students to a teacher for every 16.39 students.  Whether this change is significant is a question on which people may differ – research shows no consistent relationship between student-teacher ratios and academic achievement—but metro Milwaukee still remains quite close to the national average teacher-student ratio of 16.0.  Milwaukee was – and remains – more or less average in the ratio of students to teachers.   The second limitation is that, whatever one thinks of this change, it cannot be blamed on Act 10, Wisconsin’s historic collective bargaining reform.  PPF itself makes no such claim, observing that “we cannot say that the sharp increase in teachers leaving prior to the 2013-14 school year was caused by the application of Act 10 provisions in these districts.” However, this has not stopped some in the news media from making that jump.

The reality is that it is very difficult to separate any effect of Act 10 on the teaching workforce from overall national trends that occurred simultaneously as a result of the Great Recession, and increasing disillusionment with teaching among the next generation of potential educators. Nationwide, research suggests that about 37% of school districts made cuts to their classroom teaching workforce as a result of the 2009-10 recession.[1] As noted by PPF, teacher education programs around the country (not just in Wisconsin) have faced declining enrollment. Indeed, the decline in teacher prep enrollments in neighboring states, like Michigan and Illinois, are even greater than in Wisconsin.

The PPF report is very informative in providing the numbers on the current state of education in metro-Milwaukee.  But is should be taken as just that.  Without a more in-depth analysis, opponents of Act 10 and advocates for increased teaching salaries should be careful about making any firmer conclusions.

[1] Ellerson, Noelle M. 2010. A cliff hanger: How America’s public schools continue to feel the impact of the economic downturn. Arlington, VA: American Association of School Administrators.

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