Teacher Shortage? Depends Who You Ask

Report projects shortage but critics point to a more nuanced picture of the teaching workforce
Blog Post
Nov. 16, 2016

My fellow teachers and I gathered in the school library, readjusting to the kid-sized tables and chairs and exchanging stories from our summer breaks. With the brief summer respite over, we were once again gathered for a staff meeting, our first one on the first teacher work day about two weeks before students were to arrive.

As the principal went through the perfunctory welcomes, an unspoken routine played out: Similar to how a teacher might check his roster on the first day of school, my colleagues and I scanned the room, taking a mental tally of which teachers from the previous year were present and which were “missing.” Later that same day, I walked down the hallways and noticed which classrooms were occupied by a new teacher or were altogether empty. In my second year of teaching, the new faces outnumbered the familiar ones.

If anyone was surprised by the number of new teachers in the room, they didn’t show it. In the district where I taught nearly 90 percent of students qualified for free or reduced-price meals and the teacher turnover rate was high. It wasn’t surprising to see new faces in front of classrooms at the beginning or even middle of the year. Some were certified teachers, others “permanent subs” filling in until a teacher was hired. Sometimes this process took months, if a teacher was ever hired at all.

According to a report released this fall from the Learning Policy Institute, my experience was not unique. The report, “Solving the Teacher Shortage: How to Attract and Retain Excellent Educators,” estimates that if rates of recruitment and retention do not improve, the U.S. will be facing a national teacher shortage of 112,000 by 2018. But, as some critics of the report suggest, teacher shortages like the one playing out in the district in which I taught are more nuanced than they may initially appear.

Source: Learning Policy Institute Report

One’s state’s shortage is another’s surplus.

The extent to which there is truly a teacher shortage depends largely on the subject, grade level, and state — a nuance that has sparked criticisms of the report’s methodology and “alarmist” warnings of a teacher shortage. Indeed, in some grade levels and geographic regions, there is actually a teacher surplus. An analysis by the National Council on Teacher Quality found a significant oversupply of elementary school teachers in many states. Still, the supply of new teachers does not tell the whole story when it comes to teaching quality. For example, while there is a surplus of elementary school teachers in many states, many PreK-3rd grade teachers enter classrooms without adequate preparation around best teaching practices for young children.

In response to criticisms, the report’s authors have clarified that their “projections only reflect what might happen if conditions do not change, even as we know they will” and that “teacher shortages are, for the most part, not national in nature.”

What the report’s authors as well as its critics can agree on is that many districts are experiencing shortages in specific subjects and schools — namely in the areas of special education, math, and science and in high-poverty urban and rural schools. And while the shortages may not be pervasive across subjects, grades, and states, there are a number of factors at play that may be contributing to the shortages that do exist.

Following a decade of relatively flat growth in student enrollment, the school-going population is expected to increase by about three million students in the next decade. And school districts that increased class sizes as a cost-saving measure during the recession are looking to return to pre-recession pupil-teacher ratios — a move that, by itself, would require hiring an additional 145,000 teachers, according to the Learning Policy Institute report.

Yet while demand for teachers is growing, the report suggests that fewer teachers are entering the profession, and many of those who do are leaving long before retirement. According to the report, between 19 and 30 percent of teachers leave the profession within their first five years -- part of what has come to be known as the “leaky bucket” wherein the profession is losing a continuous stream of educators. Compounding the problem, lagging enrollment in teacher preparation programs means the bucket is leaking faster than it’s being replenished with new educators. In other words, just as demand is growing, the overall supply may be waning.

While the LPI report focuses on educators in grades K-12, many of these issues are evident, if not more acute, when it comes to early childhood educators. The teachers of our youngest learners are, on average, paid far less than their K-12 counterparts and enjoy fewer benefits. As a result, the early childhood workforce is marked by persistent turnover and instability.

Why do teachers enter, stay in, or leave the profession?

While the degree to which there is a teacher shortage remains a question of debate, the fact remains that each year, thousands of teachers enter and leave the classroom for reasons other than retirement. Drawing on an extensive body of research and a national survey of educators, the report identifies three factors that most frequently contribute to teachers’ decisions to enter, remain in, and/or leave the profession:

  1. Family and personal reasons, including pregnancy, child care, and geographic moves.
  2. The compensation, status, and job satisfaction offered by other career opportunities as compared to teaching.
  3. Working conditions, including school accountability and testing systems, the quality of administrative support, and teacher input into decision-making.

As seen in the graph below, teachers’ specific reasons for leaving the classroom vary but it appears that teachers are driven away by dissatisfaction with working conditions and the allure of other career opportunities. What exactly is driving teacher dissatisfaction is a question of ongoing debate and one that I’ll leave for another post. Pay surely plays a role: teachers earn about 20% less than individuals with college degrees in other fields, according to the LPI report. This wage gap increases by mid-career. Still, as my colleague and former educator Laura Bornfreund has written, “pay is not the driving reason good teachers leave the classroom; it’s merely the icing on the cake.”

Source: Learning Policy Institute Report

Improving chronic teacher shortages will require comprehensive changes.

The report recommends a range of actions policymakers and district administrators can make to improve retention and recruitment. While some of the recommendations would require a considerable amount of resources, others could be done relatively simply.

For example, evidence suggests that teachers hired after the start of the school year are less effective and more likely to leave the workforce. Yet, between 11 and 30 percent of newly hired teachers fall into this category. Districts could restructure their hiring processes so that hiring begins earlier and includes a multi-step interview process whereby the best candidates are vetted and selected. This way, schools are not scrambling to hire teachers after the school year begins and newly-hired teachers are not abruptly thrown into a classroom without adequate preparation time — a reality for many new teachers and one that stymies rates of retention.

Then, following the hiring process, schools and districts must ensure teachers are supported during their first, and often most difficult, years of teaching. Strong support from the start improves teacher effectiveness and leads to higher rates of teacher retention. The report recommends that districts implement robust, research-based induction programs in which new teachers receive support and feedback from trained mentors and are given adequate time to collaborate with colleagues and engage in instructional support activities.

Perhaps most importantly, the report recommends that districts and school leaders foster a school culture in which teachers feel included, supported, and connected to one another. Research suggests that working conditions, including the quality of collegial relationships, level of teacher autonomy, and teaching input in decision making, most greatly influence teachers’ job satisfaction and their career decisions. Indeed, salary increases have been shown to be an ineffective tool in attracting and retaining teachers in hard-to-staff schools when they are not accompanied by efforts to address the underlying working conditions.

In all, the report makes 15 recommendations for federal, state, and local policymakers. Just as there is no single reason for teachers’ departure from the classroom, mitigating the teacher shortage won’t be solved by one policy or program alone. And it will be important to acknowledge that, while addressing the supply and demand of teachers, we must also bear in mind teacher quality. This is especially pertinent to the early childhood workforce where teacher preparation, compensation, and quality of instruction varies greatly, no doubt due to the fractured nature of the field.

Improving teacher recruitment and retention will require a comprehensive approach that addresses the teacher pipeline at all stages. While some of the LPI report’s projections remain questionable, its recommendations represent an important vision for a new teaching reality -- one in which teachers are properly trained, supported, compensated, and valued.