Two months into the school year, teacher help is still wanted in Cleveland. According to a Cleveland Plain Dealer report, Cleveland Metropolitan School District is still attempting to fill eighty-four teacher vacancies, mainly in the areas of special education; English-language learning (ELL); and high school math, science, and English.

What a pity.

Eric Gordon, the district’s superintendent, told the newspaper that late retirements, a new teacher-hiring process, and enrollment uncertainty have all led to the staffing shortfall. There is no doubt that he’s right. But it also comes as no surprise that vacancies in these content areas are going unfilled, for it’s a well-known fact that schools face systemic shortfalls in qualified applicants for special education, math, and science. Here’s the evidence:

  • In a 2013 report, the Minnesota Department of Education found that nearly half of its schools (41 percent) said special-education vacancies are “very difficult” to fill. Over one-quarter of schools reported that chemistry and math vacancies (28 and 26 percent, respectively) are “very difficult” to fill. By comparison, only 2 percent of schools said elementary and social-studies teacher vacancies are “very difficult” to fill.
  • A 2008 study from the Wisconsin Department of Education found that there are a whopping sixty-seven applicants for every elementary teacher vacancy and sixty-five applicants for every social-studies vacancy. Meanwhile, there were only fifteen applicants per learning disability and chemistry vacancy and twenty-four applicants per math vacancy.
  • Back home in Ohio, 90 percent of Dayton Public Schools principals told NCTQ researchers that special-education, math, and science vacancies were the hardest-to-staff areas of instruction.[1]

So in sum, schools across the nation receive a deluge of elementary, social-studies, and English teacher applicants relative to their need. But when it comes to science, math, and special education, the pickings are slim.

Why so? One plausible theory is that schools’ “single salary schedules” place them at a competitive disadvantage in recruiting teachers with specialized and high-demand skills. The schedule’s uniform pay across content areas, in short, “suppresses pay differentials by field.”[2]

Perhaps an extreme case drives home the point: Under the traditional salary schedule, a second-year science teacher with a physics degree earns no more than a second-year elementary teacher with an education degree. It is likely that both earn a salary around $35,000 per year. Is it any wonder that young people with technical backgrounds—a skill set that could earn big money in the private sector—might be discouraged from teaching? (Note: It is less clear to me whether there is an extra-educational demand for ELL or special-education instructors, as there would seem to be for science and math instructors.)

Schools, however, aren’t hapless in their quest to match supply and demand. Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, for example, recently profiled a Colorado school district that has enacted bold changes in its teacher-compensation scheme. To start with, the district hired a crackerjack human resources director (previously of GE and Microsoft) who worked with principals to identify the hardest-to-staff positions. Then, based on these findings, teachers were placed on different salary “bands” based on their content area.

Teachers in hard-to-staff subjects such as special education, foreign languages, math, and science ended up on higher salary bands, while teachers in lower-need areas were placed on lower bands. Within the salary bands, teacher salaries are further distinguished by performance. The bands, however, aren’t rigid; the district retains flexibility in adjusting them, based on the number of vacancies and the supply of potential teachers.

To its credit, Cleveland has modernized its teacher salary structure. Starting this year, teacher pay is no longer tied to the “single salary schedule,” in which longevity and degrees determine pay. Rather, pay is now tied to teacher performance and other factors. Under state law (ORC 3311.78), one such factor in Cleveland’s salary structure may be—though does not necessarily have to be—additional pay for teachers in high-need subject areas.

Yet, as the Plain Dealer report indicates, there remains room for improvement. The district still must create a structure that shifts compensation towards the content areas of greatest need. (It’s unclear to me whether the optional differential compensation by content area has been implemented.) If the district needs more high-quality math teachers, they should be free to spend more money to hire such teachers. And if it has a glut of elementary school teachers, their salaries should, at least, remain constant until supply meets demand.[3]

Schools can try to escape some rules, but they can’t escape the law of supply and demand. To be sure, teachers in lower pay “bands” will bellyache about differentiated pay. In fact, Hess reports that some teachers felt that differentiated pay by subject was an indictment of their “personal worth.” But that’s not the point. Differentiated pay by content area is a lever that allows districts to allocate funds in a way that can attract the best available talent in the areas of need, in order to best serve kids. And leaving teacher positions unfilled surely doesn’t help kids.

[1] See also Illinois Board of Education and the Arkansas Department of Education, which also list special-education-, ELL-, science-, and math-content-area shortages. In the United Kingdom even, there appears to be a chronic shortage of math and science teachers.

[2] Michael Podgursky, “Teacher Compensation and Collective Bargaining” in Handbook of the Economics of Education, vol. 3, eds. Eric Hanushek, Stephen J. Machin, Ludger Woessmann (Amsterdam: North Holland, 2010), 293.

[3] State law may need to be loosened to permit differentiated compensation in teacher salary for all Ohio school districts (Cleveland is governed under a special set of state laws). Presently, ORC 3317.13 and 3317.14 require a salary schedule to be based on, at a minimum, longevity and credits earned.


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