Market principles offer solutions to teacher shortage

One way to increase the applicants is to make the job more desirable, particularly by paying more

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Michael ZwaagstraNova Scotia doesn’t have enough substitute teachers. The shortage is so severe that school boards are hiring people without teacher’s certificates to fill substitute positions. In many cases, regular teachers must use prep time to cover for absent colleagues.

To make things worse, there’s an ongoing shortage of specialty teachers, particularly in French immersion. In fact, school divisions across the country are having difficulty finding qualified French teachers. French immersion programs continue to increase in popularity. Without qualified teachers, French immersion can’t continue and that would upset many parents.

There are no simple solutions to the Nova Scotia teacher shortage. Hiring uncertified substitutes is a stopgap. Increasing the number of teacher training spots in education faculties might help alleviate the problem, or it might simply produce an oversupply of teachers who end up going to other provinces for work. As for French immersion, there just aren’t enough teachers who choose to specialize in French language instruction.

One of the best ways to increase the applicants for any position is to make the job more desirable. The more a position pays, the more likely it is that people will take an interest in applying for the job.

It’s no secret that substitute teaching is not particularly desirable. The pay is low, the hours are unpredictable, and substitute teachers receive little respect from students or other teachers. Add to this the challenge of finding substitute teachers to fill in-demand positions such as French immersion and it isn’t difficult to see why there aren’t many substitutes available.

Nova Scotia teachers, including substitutes, are bound by a provincial collective agreement that stipulates the pay for teachers be based on years of education and experience. No distinction is made between grade levels or subject areas. Substitute teachers receive about two-thirds of the daily salary of a regular teacher, which works out to approximately $180 a day.

Unfortunately, the collective agreement between the teachers and the province makes it impossible for school boards to be flexible. Instead of setting the pay for all substitute teachers at $180, why not allow school boards to pay substitutes based on market demand? If there’s a shortage of substitute teachers, increase their pay to $300 a day, which is approximately what substitutes in Saskatchewan receive. That might be enough to coax some teachers out of retirement to help meet the demand.

When there’s an abundant supply of substitute teachers, pay them $180 a day. When there’s a greater demand, increase their pay. Substitutes who can teach in a specialty area should receive even more money. This should help with the recruitment process.

School boards should be able to increase the pay for substitute teachers who are qualified for specialty areas. There’s no doubt that a substitute teacher who can teach a variety of grade levels and subject areas, including French, is considerably more valuable than a teacher who can handle just one subject area or one grade level. It makes no sense to pay both these teachers the same amount.

The same applies to regular teachers in hard-to-staff positions such as French immersion. Considering how difficult it is for school boards to find French immersion teachers, it seems reasonable for school boards to pay these teachers more than the amount listed in the collective agreement.

While some of these changes could be implemented without dismantling the collective agreement, it’s fair to ask whether market-based principles could apply more widely to other areas of the education system. After all, many factors other than years of experience and education influence teacher effectiveness. Perhaps such things should be taken into consideration in future pay scales for all teachers.

When facing a teacher shortage, school boards need to start thinking outside the box. Paying higher salaries to the teachers who are needed the most would be a good first step.

Michael Zwaagstra is a research fellow with the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies and a public high school teacher.


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