What Role Does the U.S. Department of Education Play in Addressing Teacher Shortages?

Blog Post
Nov. 14, 2022

Recently, my son’s teacher abruptly resigned due to the stress of the job. My son is in kindergarten, a pivotal year for developing foundational literacy and math skills, and now will have a long-term substitute as his school searches for a full-time teacher. My other son, a ninth grader, has spent the entire first term without a permanent history teacher or health teacher. Whatever you may be reading about teacher shortages, the reality is that schools are struggling to fill positions and students are experiencing gaps in stable access to certified and prepared educators.

A new study from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) explores the pervasiveness of teacher shortages, factors contributing to teacher shortages and the strength of the U.S. Department of Education’s (ED) efforts to address these issues.

To answer these questions, GAO analysts pooled together data from various sources across more than a decade’s time including the National Teacher and Principal Survey (NTPS), Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS) (which was replaced by the NTPS in 2015), Baccalaureate and Beyond Longitudinal Study (B&B), Common Core of Data (CCD), Current Population Survey (CPS), Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), and the American Community Survey (ACS). A big reason for using so many different data sources is the lack of national-level data on the scope of teacher shortages. These data were supplemented by a literature review of research articles on teacher recruitment and retention, published between 2011-2021, to identify themes. Education officials and subject matter experts were interviewed and 19 focus groups were conducted with former teachers, current teachers, school district hiring representatives, state education agency staff, and officials from both traditional and alternative certification programs.

Key findings included that teacher shortages are more prevalent in Western states, urban, rural and high-poverty communities and in schools that serve majority students of color who come from low income backgrounds. And teacher shortages appear to be getting worse. While 20 percent of principals reported teacher shortages in 2011-12, by 2015-16 that grew to 31 percent of principals. In addition, across all four regions (Northeast, South, Midwest, West), shortages were between 8-17 percentage points greater than five years before. The three most common subject-area shortages reported were foreign language, science and special education. The growth in shortages is troubling given that these data were all reported prior to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Initial reports of the impact of the pandemic on teacher shortages, as highlighted in the report, suggest that retaining teachers has become more challenging. Focus group participants commented that more teachers are resigning mid-year, which was previously a “rare” occurrence. These challenges are compounded by additional factors that contribute to teacher attrition, including a lack of support from students, parents and school leadership, stressful working conditions, increased job-disruptions, poor work-life balance, student behavior challenges and low compensation. Their analysis of federal salary data found that in 36 states, including the District of Columbia, teachers’ median annual salary is 20 percent less than that of other college educated full-time workers. Low compensation is coupled with the high cost of becoming a teacher, which leads to increased financial pressure on educators.

The GAO report also assesses efforts by the U.S. Department of Education to help states address teacher shortages. The federal government does not play a strong role in teacher recruitment, preparation and retention as those policies are set and implemented at the state and local level; however, they are able to supplement efforts through competitive grants, offer resources and guidance, provide grant funding to build the research base on effective practices, and lead research and technical assistance support to states through the Regional Educational Laboratory program (REL).

While ED has adopted a vision, “Supporting and Elevating the Teaching Profession,” and has engaged in activities to support this vision, including defining priorities in competitive grants focused on teacher development, meeting with parents, teachers, and families, and offering guidance on how to use federal recovery funds to sustain the workforce, the report ultimately concludes that more could be done to enact a comprehensive strategy. Some suggestions included building a one-stop website to make it easier to find research and resources related to teacher recruitment, preparation and retention and to continue refining competitive grant programs to focus more on growing the teacher pipeline and retaining teachers in the profession. Currently, grant programs such as the Teacher Quality Partnership (TQP), Supporting Effective Educator Development (SEED), National Professional Development (NPD), and Indian Education Professional Development (PD), provide millions of dollars in funding to support the preparation and professional development of school leaders and teachers, including in subject-area shortages.

In addition, ED can promote efforts to improve data collection and reporting on teacher recruitment, preparation and retention to boost access to comprehensive information about the teacher workforce. A recent report by my colleague Melissa Tooley describes federal data collection and reporting requirements and offers recommendations for improvement, including encouraging and promoting state policies and data systems that align teacher workforce strategies.

ED leaders should also utilize the bully pulpit to highlight educator workforce priorities and advance a variety of promising preparation approaches to stem teacher shortages including Grow Your Own programs, teacher residency, and Community College Baccalaureate programs. Over the summer, Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona issued a broad call for all states to adopt and implement K-12 teacher Registered Apprenticeship programs. And states appeared to have listened. Tennessee was the first state to receive approval from the Department of Labor to implement a Registered Apprenticeship in teaching, and was followed by West Virginia and Brazosport Independent School District in Texas. Iowa has also implemented a Registered Apprenticeship grant program for high school students and paraeducators using federal recovery funds. Registered Apprenticeship opens up a new approach to funding teacher preparation through federal workforce development funds including the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) and grants from the U.S. Department of Labor. These funding streams have limitations, but can be blended and braided with other funds to support greater sustainability of state-level efforts to strengthen teacher preparation.

Lastly, the federal government should go beyond promoting teacher recruitment and preparation strategies to also focus on improving the quality and conditions of educators’ work. The Biden-Harris administration’s “Good Jobs” initiative, which is focused on improving job quality and increasing access to good union jobs, is an opportunity to connect teacher preparation and retention with broader workforce development goals. Historically, teacher preparation has not been considered in workforce development efforts and now, with so many states embracing Registered Apprenticeship programs for teachers, there is an opportunity to invest in ensuring that teachers have access to well-paying jobs and better working conditions.

Addressing teacher shortages will require attention to each part of the teacher workforce continuum, from recruitment, to preparation, and to retention. Investing millions in teacher preparation without equal investments in improving teachers’ working conditions will only stymie efforts to develop a long-term solution to strengthening and supporting the educator workforce.

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