Results of a new survey suggest schools are still struggling to fill key teaching positions—particularly in special education—as they continue to recover from the coronavirus pandemic.
In a nationally representative survey of educators conducted by the EdWeek Research Center last month, 49 percent of school district leaders who responded said they had unfilled special education teaching positions. Twenty-eight percent had openings in elementary school, 27 percent reported vacancies in math and computer science, and 26 percent had vacancies in science courses.
But the shortages aren’t universal: Twenty-one percent of district leaders who responded said they had no unfilled teaching positions, and others have probably since hired long-term substitutes to fill slots.
The findings are consistent with what districts have experienced throughout the pandemic—and the trend hasn’t seemed to let up or plateau yet, said Chad Aldeman, the policy director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University.
It’s important to note, he said, that the education industry is cyclical, meaning districts are most likely to report lower vacancy rates in August and September because peak hiring (and resigning) season is in the summer.
Districts emphasize positive stories—and coaching opportunities for teachers
Mike Cady, superintendent of the Pewaukee School District about 20 miles outside of Milwaukee, said his schools are now fully staffed, despite what can be “intense” competition with neighboring districts.
Prior to the start of the school year, Pewaukee hired 23 certified staff members, equal to about 10 percent of its certified workforce. The hires included seven special education teachers, three speech therapists, and a school psychologist.
The district has largely relied on its reputation and branding as a “great place to learn for students and work for employees,” Cady said. The focus on a positive culture, nurtured in part by a communications department that helps highlight positive stories about the district, has drawn several candidates, he said.
“I think making this a great place to work has really helped us during such challenging times with finding a qualified workforce,” Cady said. “This is certainly important for recruitment and is clearly critical for retention.”
Gustavo Balderas, the superintendent of the Beaverton School District in northwest Oregon, said the district has hired more than 1,000 staff members since July, including 584 teachers. Now, it’s nearly fully staffed—thanks, in part, to pandemic-era easing of licensure requirements.
During the pandemic, Oregon was among a group of about a dozen states that eased teacher-certification requirements by taking steps like changing criteria or dropping exams.
Still, though, most of those teachers have gone through a significant chunk of their training, like finishing college coursework, or have finished some of their student teaching and observation, Balderas said.
“That wasn’t the case everywhere. So, in Oregon, it made it easier to get teachers in the classroom,” Balderas said.
It’s important, he added, to support those new teachers by providing mentorship and coaching opportunities from administrators and colleagues.
Districts use short and long-term strategies
“Grow your own” programs, which focus on introducing high school students to the profession and supporting them in getting the proper education and certification, can serve as long-term solutions to future staffing shortages when the well of federal pandemic aid that many districts have used to hire and incentivize employees runs dry, Balderas said.
Aldeman said he’s been encouraged by the number of districts that have used financial incentives to retain teachers. But he also cautioned that it’s a Band-Aid fix, while grow your own programs can help target the root of the problem: A pervasive shortage of locally available teachers.
Using incentives to draw recent retirees back to the classroom and getting people in teacher-training programs in front of students earlier, when possible, can also help, Aldeman said.
The concept of loosening requirements for teachers’ certification has faced some resistance in districts that have tried it from parents concerned doing so would affect the quality of education their students receive. But Aldeman said he’s not convinced some of the requirements produce better teachers. They could, instead, just be restricting the number of potential, willing teachers.
“It would be better to have the spots filled by people who want to be there than to either not fill the spots at all, or dip down into the applicant pool of people who maybe have the credentials but there’s another reason they’re not being hired,” he said.
In its recent survey, the Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics reported 48 percent of principals surveyed said hiring teachers has been a challenge. In that survey, 65 percent of principals said they were beginning the school year short-staffed in special education, and 43 percent said they were short-staffed in elementary school classrooms.
The EdWeek Research Center surveyed 1,558 teachers, principals, and district administrators from Aug. 31 to Sept. 15.