Headline after headline over the past month have proclaimed a national teacher shortage—one that’s “really bad” or at “catastrophic” levels. The issue has even risen to the attention of the White House.
But how bad is it, really?
Two new studies, both published in August by the Annenberg Institute at Brown University, attempt to uncover concrete information about teacher shortages and turnover rates during the pandemic. Both teams of researchers ran into considerable limitations that make it impossible to collect real-time, comprehensive data to quantify the extent of a national shortage.
What that all means, they say, is that states, districts, and policymakers need granular data to help them tailor solutions—but right now often don’t have access to it.
“Without understanding with detailed data the nature of the problem, we may try to solve it with solutions that are inappropriate for the way that shortages are playing out,” said Matthew Kraft, an associate professor of education and economics at Brown and an author of one of the papers.
For instance, he said, policymakers might assume that teacher shortages are universal and enact broad initiatives to attract more people into the profession—without any regard for where those people end up. In reality, the shortages might be more acute in certain areas of the country or in certain schools, and effective policies would target those areas.
Teacher shortages in certain subject areas (like special education or high school math) and certain locales (like rural areas) have been perennial issues for years. School districts have also long been trying to recruit and retain more teachers of color.
But since the pandemic, teachers have signaled that they’re more inclined to quit their jobs, citing high stress, low pay, and a lack of respect. And many school districts have reported having a hard time filling staff vacancies at the start of this school year.
Here’s what the new research could—and couldn’t—find out about the national landscape.
One study tracks reports across the country
Tuan Nguyen, an assistant professor at Kansas State University, Chanh Lam, a data analyst and Ph.D. graduate student at Kansas State, and Paul Bruno, an assistant professor of education policy at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, have spent years trying to determine the exact scope of the national teacher shortage.
“When we started this project two years ago, we thought there has got to be a national or federal database on vacancy [rates]. But we couldn’t find anything like that,” Nguyen said.
The closest the researchers could find was a report by the U.S. Department of Education, which shares the subject areas in which states report shortages—but “doesn’t give any sense of magnitude,” Nguyen said.
The researchers set out to find every publicly available source of information on statewide teacher shortages, including news reports and education department websites. They also asked state education departments for their vacancy numbers when those weren’t published online.
Then, the researchers analyzed federal data sources, including student and teacher populations and the annual completion numbers for teacher-certification programs in each state, to put together a comprehensive picture of teacher shortages.
With all this data, the researchers estimate that there are more than 36,500 teacher vacancies in the nation. They also estimate that there are more than 163,500 positions filled by teachers who aren’t fully certified or are not certified in the subject area they’re teaching.
“That’s a substantial number of students who aren’t being served” by a qualified teacher, Nguyen said.
It’s also a conservative estimate, because the researchers weren’t able to collect comprehensive information for 13 states, including populous states like California, Oregon, Louisiana, Ohio, and New York. “It’s unclear whether the data doesn’t exist or they don’t have the personnel or capacity to produce that information,” Nguyen said.
And while some of the data come from the 2021-22 school year, other states reported data dating as far back as 2014. The researchers used this data in absence of anything more recent, but it’s likely that the number of vacancies have changed since then.
The analysis also shows that shortages are not uniform across the United States. States in the South had much higher vacancy rates than states in the Northeast, for example.
“For some states and some regions, it is particularly severe,” Nguyen said. “In a sense, it’s ubiquitous, but it’s not all at the same level.”
The researchers will continue to update their map of shortages in hopes of eventually getting information for all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
A second study analyzes turnover rates
Over the course of the pandemic, survey after survey has shown that teachers say they intend to leave their jobs. But past research has shown that many teachers who say they want to quit won’t actually do so—retirement considerations, money, and other factors keep them in the classroom.
To see whether teacher turnover did increase during the pandemic, Joshua Bleiberg, an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh, and Brown University’s Kraft analyzed several national and state datasets.
All of them had limitations. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics provides monthly national employment updates, but it lumps together higher education and private schools alongside K-12 public schools. The National Center for Education Statistics collects nationally representative K-12 employment data, but it is released on a delay of about a year or more. And data from state education departments is usually more detailed and timely, but the approaches to reporting the data vary significantly by state, making it difficult to compare numbers.
The researchers were able to identify 16 states that have estimates of teacher turnover for pre-pandemic years and at least the 2019-20 school year, the first of the pandemic. They defined turnover as the percent of teachers who do not return to their school or district the following year. (Before the pandemic, the overall annual turnover rate was 16 percent across the country, encompassing all teachers who quit, retired, or switched schools.)
The researchers found that the national K-12 education labor market shrank by about 9 percent from March to May 2020—with significant job losses among school support staff, who were often laid off at the start of the pandemic when schools were closed. Many of the jobs that were lost in the spring were then recovered in the fall of 2020, but not all: By March 2022, employment levels remained 4 percent below pre-pandemic levels.
The state data showed that teachers did not leave their jobs en masse in the summer of 2020—in fact, turnover decreased on average. Data on teacher turnover in the summer of 2021 was more limited, but in the seven states that are reporting last year’s numbers, turnover increased modestly, returning to pre-pandemic levels.
Why did overall employment decline while teacher turnover stayed relatively consistent? The researchers speculated that it’s because of weak hiring through the summer of 2020, given budget shortfalls, and high attrition among district support staff.
Still, it’s hard to draw any definitive conclusions from these findings, given the lack of reliable and comparable data. The researchers noted that until now, compiling this data wasn’t a high priority for states.
“There seems to be not a universally agreed need for showing the size and scope of teacher shortages across different school contexts,” Bleiberg said.
Kraft said he expects states to eventually beef up their data collection and reporting systems—either out of their own volition or because of federal incentives. While teacher shortages are not new, they have never captured national attention to this extent, he said.
“There have been real, longstanding shortages in some schools and some subjects for a decade in this country,” Kraft said. “In my view, the fact that we’re only talking about those localized shortages now is the story. That is the crisis. Why have we effectively accepted the fact that some schools just aren’t able to get the teachers they need and that every student deserves?”