With Labor Day now behind us, K-12 students across the country have bid farewell to summer and returned to school for a new academic year. For anyone casually following news cycles over the last few months, one wouldn’t be blamed for imagining classrooms this fall overflowing with students but short on teachers, for the overwhelming narrative has painted a picture of a catastrophic—and worsening— national teacher shortage.

As with most complex issues, however, more nuance is needed to fully understand the dynamics at play. So, is there really a worsening, national teacher shortage?

A Catastrophic Teacher Shortage?

National news stories would make you think so.

Headlines, like “America faces catastrophic teacher shortage” and “Nationwide teacher shortage worsens,” have captured the public’s attention suggesting another challenging school year following unprecedented pandemic disruptions in the K-12 school system. Even without these headlines, though, one wouldn’t be blamed for thinking there is a worsening shortage on our hands.

As we discussed in a previous Wake-Up Call, teachers experienced increased levels of stress, fatigue, and job change consideration throughout the pandemic period.

It’s also well understood that teachers are underpaid. Recent analysis by the Economic Policy Institute underscores this point by finding that average weekly wages of teachers grew by just $29 (adjusted for inflation) between 1996 and 2021. It also found that the teacher wage penalty—how much less teachers earn in average weekly wages relative to other college graduates—grew from 6% in 1996 to 24% in 2021.

Interest in teaching, measured by teacher preparation program enrollment and completions, has also taken a hit as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1

Figure 1.

Over the 2008-09 to 2019-20 period, total enrollment in teacher preparation programs fell from 719,081 to 448,967 while total teacher preparation program completions fell from 221,439 to 152,853—declines of 38% and 31% respectively. Together, much data certainly suggests that conditions are ripe for a national, catastrophic teacher shortage.

Not so fast…

But there is no catastrophic national teacher shortage. At least, that is not the most accurate description.

Rather, a more accurate description is that some school districts (e.g., those in more rural parts of the country), some schools (e.g., those in areas with higher levels of poverty), and some positions (e.g., special education) are more prone to shortages than others. Indeed, many districts are severely challenged and are resorting to new measures, like four-day school weeks and looser qualifications, to attract and retain teachers.

But this phenomenon is not technically a national one, nor is it new, as this reflects pre-pandemic challenges.

More recent and less sensational articles have attempted to temper the spiraling narrative of a catastrophic national teacher shortage and provide much-needed nuance in the face of blanket claims – which is critical for framing challenges and building real solutions to real problems. Articles like the Hechinger Report’s “PROOF POINTS: Researchers say cries of teacher shortages are overblown,” and the Atlantic’s “There Is No National Teacher Shortage” make a couple of critical points:

No mass teacher exodus … at least not yet.

Despite the increased rates of stress, fatigue, and job change consideration among the teaching force during COVID-19, there is no evidence of a mass teacher exodus.

One excerpt from the Hechinger Report includes, “‘Among researchers, I think we’ve reached a consensus that there hasn’t been an exodus of teachers during the pandemic,’ said Heather Schwartz, a researcher at RAND, a nonprofit research organization, which regularly surveys school districts around the country about their staffing. ‘I don’t see many district leaders saying we have a serious, severe shortage of teachers. I don’t see the crisis.’”

The Atlantic’s piece adds, “data … from five states and 19 large U.S. school districts, including in New York City and Houston, show that teacher-turnover rates haven’t actually increased despite more teachers threatening to quit.”

COVID-19 hiring may skew the data.

With COVID-19 came an influx of federal funding, through the CARES and American Rescue Plan Acts, for schools to make critical investments in an unprecedented time. Some of these funds were used to create new positions and hire more teachers potentially meaning vacancies are for new positions.

The Hechinger Report notes, “Schwartz found that 77% of schools went on a hiring spree in 2021-22 as $190 billion in federal pandemic funds started flowing, according to a RAND survey released on July 19, 2022. ‘Yes, there’s a shortage in the sense that they have unfilled open positions. But it’s sort of a misnomer to say the word “shortage” because compared to pre-pandemic, there are more people employed at the school.’”

The position-specific aspect in this conversation is also one to consider. The American Association for Employment in Education’s (AAEE) 2021-2022 Educator Supply and Demand Report is informed by a survey of 373 school districts. In this survey, school districts were asked about levels of supply and demand for 64 individual teaching fields. Of the 64 individual teaching fields, 29 were rated as critical shortage areas—almost half of all fields!

A closer look, however, reveals the vast majority of these 29 fields (27, or 93%) can be organized into three broader categories (Figure 2): Special Education, Languages, and STEM.

Special Education (12)Languages (9)STEM (6)
Severe/Profound Disabilities Special Ed.ArabicPhysics
Visually Impaired Special EducationItalianChemistry
Multicategorical Special EducationRussianMath
Emotional/Behavioral Disorders Special Ed.JapaneseBiology
Hearing Impaired Special EducationAmerican Sign LanguageEarth/Physical Science
Cognitive Disabilities Special EducationChineseGeneral Math and Science
Learning Disability Special EducationClassical: Greek, Latin
Mild/Moderate Disabilities Special Ed.Bilingual/Multicultural Education
Early Childhood Special EducationGerman
Speech Pathology
Audiology

Figure 2.

Special Education, long a “Teacher Shortage Area” designated by the U.S. Department of Education, sees the most fields categorized as in critical shortage. Certainly, the additional legal requirements, administration, paperwork, and extremely vulnerable student population make this among the most challenging teaching occupations.

There are two critical shortage areas not classified in Figure 2. School nursing and psychology are two non-classroom positions.

The Bottom Line

This Wake-Up Call does not intend to imply that there is no problem here. Indeed, certain schools and districts are struggling to fill roles leading some states, like Florida and Arizona, to loosen certification requirements and some districts to experiment with new ways to attract and retain teachers. But the issue requires more nuance than blanket statements around a national teacher shortage.

For institutions of higher education eager to meet the call for new teachers, new teacher preparation programs need to be weighed with the realities of the teaching profession – meaning a rush of new recruits might not necessarily be in the cards. Additionally, Eduventures’ most recent Bachelor’s and Master’s Market Updates categorize the education field as a “Red Flag Market” noting significant signs of market saturation as supply has well outpaced demand.

There’s also only so much that schools can do to attract new candidates to the teaching profession. Ultimately, deeper policy conversations are needed to move that needle.

 

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Clint Raine

Eduventures Senior Analyst at Encoura
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