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.
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.
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.
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.