Classroom Prep

Mercer Elementary School teacher Stephanie Shrewsbury works on preparing her classroom in this 2017 file photo.

PRINCETON — Teacher shortages continue to be a problem locally and across the country, especially in certain areas like special education, math and science.

In fact, Mercer County has listed 27 vacancies in special education going into the 2020-21 school year, and having a large number of those vacancies in that area is not unusual.

“We always have a shortage in that field,” said Amy Harrison, information and data specialist for Mercer County schools. “But it is a lot this year.”

The problem, she said, is students in education are no longer going into that field as they once did.

“We just don’t have enough teachers certified in that area,” she said. “It (the shortage) is also a nationwide problem, and it is with teachers in general.”

According to the Learning Policy Institute, several factors go into a shortage in the special education field, where teachers educate a wide array of special needs students.

“The field of special education at large has long been plagued by persistent shortages of fully certified teachers, in large part due to a severe drop in teacher education enrollments and high attrition for special educators,” an institute study said, adding that the result is that teachers not certified in that area are often used out of necessity.

The study said reasons for leaving the field include “challenging working conditions that include large caseloads, overwhelming workload and compliance obligations, inadequate support, and compensation that is too low to mitigate high costs of living and student debt loads. Focus group participants confirm these conditions in California and their contribution to special educator attrition.”

Many counties fill the positions, as well as other positions where certified teachers cannot be found, with teachers not certified in that field or long-term substitute teachers.

During the teachers strike in West Virginia in 2018 the state had a shortage of certified teachers of more than 700, and that number was about the same last year.

David Woodard, chairman of the Tazewell County School Board, said the county has in the past experienced shortages of special education teachers, but this coming school year that is not the case.

However, other positions are open, especially physical education.

“One of our biggest shortages in is PE,” he said. “We can’t fill the PE positions, sometimes for a year or two at a time.”

Woodard other areas where the county is having shortages include upper level math, science, English and others.

“We can have in almost every area a teacher shortage,” he said.

The institute study said that unless major changes in teacher supply or a reduction in demand for additional teachers occur over the coming years, annual nationwide teacher shortages could increase to as much as 112,000 teachers each year and remain close to that level thereafter.

Low pay for the education and responsibility is one of the major reasons for the shortage.

According to a paper by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), the teacher pay penalty – the percent by which public school educators are paid less than comparable workers – has reached an all-time high. When adjusting only for inflation, the researchers found that teachers, compared to other college graduates, are paid nearly $350 less per week in salary in 2017, or 23 percent less.

But there is also another contributing factor to the growing teaching shortage: Fewer students are going into the profession to begin with.

In a 2016 national survey of college freshmen reported by the National Education Association (NEA), the number of students who say they will major in education has reached its lowest point in 45 years. Just 4.2 percent intend to major in education—a typical first step to becoming a teacher— compared to 11 percent in 2000; 10 percent in 1990; and 11 percent in 1971, according to data gathered by the UCLA’s Cooperative Institutional Research Program.

Contact Charles Boothe at

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