Recruitment & Retention

All Teaching Shortages Are Not Equal: 4 Takeaways From New Research

By Mark Lieberman — December 06, 2022 5 min read
Image of an empty classroom.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Schools nationwide continue to experience shortages of qualified employees, and new research is shedding light on the longstanding nature of these issues.

Attention on staffing in schools grew during the pandemic, as perpetual difficulties filling open positions grew into veritable nightmares. Thanks to COVID and other spreading viruses, staff members are calling out sick at greater rates than substitutes are willing to step in. Meanwhile, open positions in schools—some newly created with the help of federal COVID relief funds—go unfilled for months.

Poor working conditions are a primary source of the teacher shortage phenomenon, argues a new report from the Economic Policy Institute. The problem isn’t primarily a lack of qualified teachers, it says, but a lack of incentives for those qualified workers to take grueling, underappreciated jobs.

See also

Students board buses at Frances Slocum Elementary School in Marion, Ind., after classes on Thursday, Aug. 16, 2018. Marion Community Schools is looking for more bus drivers.
Students board buses at Frances Slocum Elementary School in Marion, Ind., where the school district has struggled to fill open positions for bus drivers—part of the larger wave of staffing shortages in schools.
Jeff Morehead/The Chronicle-Tribune via AP
Recruitment & Retention How School Staffing Shortages Are Hurting Students
Mark Lieberman, June 15, 2022
11 min read

When these problems persist behind the scenes, students suffer in the classroom, the report says. Workers in buildings get tired from going beyond their job duties to make up for missing colleagues or open positions. Students with disabilities and English learners miss out on crucial support services.

The days of widespread, pandemic-related school building shutdowns are long past, but school interruptions have continued. A school system in Illinois shut down for a day last month after 30 percent of staff, and between 25 and 30 percent of students, called out sick. A principal in Minnesota covered two kindergarten classrooms at once to fill staffing gaps. A handful of schools in places like Dayton, Ohio, and New York City have switched to remote learning mode on days when buildings wouldn’t be adequately staffed.

A separate study released this month echoes the EPI’s findings, emphasizing that teacher shortages don’t look the same everywhere in the country. Looking at the problem as an aggregate nationwide phenomenon, the report argues, obscures that some localities face far steeper challenges than others.

Here are a few takeaways from these two reports and other research on teaching.

Shortages are worse in certain subject areas

In the first two decades of the 21st century, states reported that virtually every subject area saw a growing shortage of teachers. But some subjects—including special education, mathematics, science, and foreign language—have seen much more severe shortages than others in recent years.

As of January 2022, the biggest shortages continued to be for special education jobs. Nearly a third of schools reported trouble finding elementary school teachers, and 16 percent reported trouble finding math teachers. Computer sciences and social studies teachers, meanwhile, were much easier to come by.

It’s also worth noting that teacher shortages go hand in hand with shortages for other crucial positions like bus drivers, paraprofessionals, instructional aides, and cafeteria workers. When those positions aren’t filled, available teachers sometimes have to step away from their classroom duties or free periods.

Vacancies have been brewing for decades

The number of K-12 education job vacancies has more than doubled since the 21st century began, according to data showcased in the EPI report from authors John Schmitt and Katherine deCourcy. Those numbers might be even greater if all states provided schools with the resources they need to hire the ideal number of people, researchers say.

Meanwhile, the number of college freshmen nationwide who intend to major in education has dropped by more than half in the last 50 years. In the early 1970s, between 10 percent and 13 percent of college freshmen had set their sights on teaching, according to data from the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles.

By 2018, that share had dropped to 4.3 percent—even as interest in other professions like social science, health, and business has stayed relatively steady.

Similarly, while the annual number of college graduates who majored in business has more than tripled in the last half-century, the number of graduates who majored in education dropped by more than half, federal data show.

Even with these declines, though, the number of qualified teachers nationwide exceeds the number of vacancies, according to research. That suggests the problem is one of willingness—many graduates from teaching programs choose not to pursue a career in that field, for instance.

Teachers work less for more money in many other countries

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, a global think tank, reviewed average teacher compensation in 26 industrialized countries and compared it to average pay for other college graduates. The United States ranked dead-last on the list, with teachers on average making only 61 percent of what other college graduates make.

By contrast, in four of the other listed countries—Lithuania, Costa Rica, Portugal, and Latvia—teachers make more than what other college graduates make. And in countries like Sweden, Germany, and Australia, teacher compensation exceeds 80 percent of the average for other college graduates.

By the same token, a survey of the same countries shows that U.S. teachers work more hours per year—2,016—than in any of the others, narrowly edging out Chile, Switzerland, and Japan.

As Education Week has reported, teachers in the U.S. often work while sick, put in 54-hour weeks, and skip lunch and bathroom breaks.

See Also

Sick woman holding tissues and drinking from a mug while working
iStock/Getty Images Plus

Shortages appear in schools right near other schools with no such problems

In a working paper published this month by Brown University’s Annenberg Center, four researchers—Danielle Sanderson Edwards and Matthew A. Kraft from Brown, Alvin Christian from the University of Michigan, and Christopher A. Candelaria from Vanderbilt University—analyzed teacher vacancy data from 2019 for Tennessee schools.

At the start of that school year, 2 percent of teaching positions were unfilled, a small but still significant number as students were already entering classrooms.

But those vacancies were concentrated in a quarter of the state’s schools, and the percentage of unfilled vacancies in secondary schools was far greater than that of elementary vacancies.

A casual observer might assume that some districts had much higher vacancy rates than others. But researchers found the biggest differences in vacancy rates were between schools within the same district. And shortages in one subject area did not necessarily correspond with a comparable shortage in another.

See Also

Stephanie LeBlanc, instructional strategist at Greeley Middle School in Cumberland Center, Maine.
Stephanie LeBlanc, an instructional strategist at Greely Middle School in Cumberland Center, Maine, has picked up numerous additional duties to help cover for staffing shortages at the school.
Ryan David Brown for Education Week
School & District Management How Staff Shortages Are Crushing Schools
Mark Lieberman, October 15, 2021
11 min read

The authors conclude that states should look at schools with historically high rates of teacher turnover as a starting point for targeting shortage interventions like higher starting pay.

They also end with a plea for states to follow Tennessee’s example and publish more data on vacancy rates and shortage areas. Fewer than half currently do, they said.

Events

Jobs Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
Challenging the Stigma: Emotions and STEM
STEM isn't just equations and logic. Join this webinar and discover how emotions fuel innovation, creativity, & problem-solving in STEM!
Content provided by Project Lead The Way
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Professional Development Webinar
Leveraging Student Voice for Teacher Retention & Development
Join our webinar on using student feedback to improve teacher performance, retention & student achievement.
Content provided by Panorama Education

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Recruitment & Retention Letter to the Editor Teacher Housing Is a Critical Need in Native Communities
We can't forget about Indian lands school districts when talking about teacher housing, says this letter to the editor.
1 min read
Education Week opinion letters submissions
Gwen Keraval for Education Week
Recruitment & Retention Q&A What Will Teacher Shortages Look Like in 2024 and Beyond? A Researcher Weighs In
Tuan Nguyen has been collecting teacher-vacancy data for years now. He shares what he's learned so far and his forecast for future turnover.
6 min read
Illustration of an empty office chair with a sign on the back that reads "Vacant"
iStock/Getty
Recruitment & Retention Opinion What Teachers of Color Say They Need Most
Teachers of color face the same challenges as their white peers, in addition to others.
15 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
iStock/Getty
Recruitment & Retention 'Lesson Planning in the Laundry Room': What Housing for Teachers Looks Like
From converted schools and tiny houses, to shiny new complexes, districts have tackled new ideas to make sure their teachers can live nearby.
7 min read
Lisa Raskin, who is a teacher at Jefferson Union High School District, talks about living on her own at the district's new housing complex in Daly City, Calif., on July 8, 2022. The school district in San Mateo County is among just a handful of places in the country with educator housing. But with a national teacher shortage and rapidly rising rents, the working class district could serve as a harbinger as schools across the U.S. seek to attract and retain educators.
Lisa Raskin, who is a teacher at the Jefferson Union high school district, talks about living on her own at the district's new housing complex in Daly City, Calif., on July 8, 2022. Only a handful of places in the country have educator housing, but teacher shortages and rapidly rising rents are making more districts take note.
Godofredo A. Vásquez/AP