Recruitment & Retention What the Research Says

Some Positive Signs for the Teacher Pipeline, But It’s Not All Good. What 3 Studies Say

By Madeline Will — March 22, 2024 | Corrected: March 25, 2024 8 min read
A classroom at Penn Wood High School in Lansdowne, Pa., sits empty on May 3, 2023. Teachers in the state left their jobs at an accelerating rate, according to an analysis that found attrition in Pennsylvania doubled in the 2022-23 school year. New studies paint a complex picture of the national pipeline.
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Corrected: Two charts in a previous version of this story were mislabeled. They have been corrected.

What is the state of the teacher pipeline? A series of new studies offers insights into this complicated question.

Reports of teacher shortages dominate the news, with school and district leaders reporting high numbers of vacancies. Even so, it’s hard to quantify the full extent of teacher shortages and turnover rates, since national data is released on a delay, and many states either don’t track such data or don’t release it on a timely basis.

The lack of up-to-date data has made the general picture “murky,” said Richard Ingersoll, a professor of education and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education.

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Illustration of an empty office chair with a sign on the back that reads "Vacant"
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“There’s nothing new about shortages. We’ve had teacher shortage crises perennially for the better part of the last century,” he said. “Is the current one worse? Well, that’s an open question to me.”

That’s not to say schools aren’t struggling to find and keep teachers, Ingersoll said—they are, and the pandemic has exacerbated those challenges. But it’s still unclear exactly how much of the current shortage is a result of low teacher supply, and how much is due to poor retention, he said.

Ingersoll found in a recent study that teachers leave the field at much higher rates than lawyers, engineers, or architects—and at slightly higher rates than nurses or police officers. The latter finding was surprising, Ingersoll said, since shortages and high turnover rates occur in the nursing and police fields, too.

Most of the teachers who leave the field are leaving before retirement, he said, meaning that there’s a vast “reserve pool” of former teachers who are a potential supply source. They make up a larger share of the potential supply source than newly trained teachers coming out of schools of education, he said.

To understand the current pipeline, it’s important to dig into its different segments Ingersoll said. Three new studies reveal the latest numbers and trends.

1. Teacher-prep enrollment ticks upward

One positive indicator for the health of the teacher pipeline: The latest data show that teacher-preparation enrollment and completion numbers have stabilized, and even grown slightly, after years of sharp declines.

The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education published two new reports last month on the latest federal data on teacher-preparation programs. The numbers come from the U.S. Department of Education’s Title II data series, collected from states, and the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, collected from colleges and universities.

From the 2010-11 school year to 2020-21, enrollment in traditional teacher-preparation programs declined by 45 percent and the number of candidates completing such programs declined by 32 percent. But from 2019-20 to 2020-21, the most recent year of data available, enrollment and completion both inched up—nearly 3 percent and 4 percent, respectively.

The gains are small but good news, especially since they happened during a pandemic school year, said Jacqueline King, an AACTE consultant for research, policy, and advocacy and the author of the reports.

“We were all thinking—the trends have been down, down, down, and the pandemic is going to make it worse,” she said. “To see that the numbers have actually rebounded a little bit, ... it’s definitely encouraging.”

The number of bachelor’s and master’s degrees conferred in education is also on the rise, which King noted is especially promising given that many students suspended enrollment or dropped out of higher education during the pandemic.

The number of bachelor’s degrees awarded in education in the 2021-22 school year was 13 percent higher than the low in 2018-19. Meanwhile, the number of master’s degrees awarded in 2021-22 increased by 4 percent from a low in 2016-17.

Even so, the number of master’s degrees completers was slightly higher in 2020-21 than in 2021-22, so King urged caution in concluding that the number of education degree recipients is on a long-term upswing. Also, while these numbers are a proxy for interest in the teaching profession, not all who earn these degrees will earn their teaching licenses or enter classrooms at all.

Total enrollment in teacher-preparation programs has stabilized at about 600,000 candidates annually, but the distribution across program types has fluctuated. While traditional college- and university-based programs still make up the largest share, enrollment in alternative programs not based at a college or university has more than doubled over the past decade.

This category includes programs run by school districts, state education agencies, charter schools, local or national nonprofits (like Teach For America), and for-profit companies. The for-profit sector—most notably, Teachers of Tomorrow, which operates in eight states, including Texas—dominates the growth in this category.

Yet the number of completions has not kept pace: “Enrollment numbers and completion numbers are wildly different,” King said of the for-profit alternative programs. “Those are folks that had an interest in teaching who didn’t end up actually completing” their programs and becoming licensed teachers.

Overall, King is optimistic about the latest trends, but they only represent the start of the teacher pipeline. What happens when teachers are in the classroom matters just as much.

“We can’t recruit our way out of the teacher shortage,” she said. “We have to find ways to retain the teachers we have and to make teaching a job that is a sustainable career for people.”

2. School-level turnover is still high

Earlier this month, Education Resource Strategies, a national nonprofit that partners with school system leaders, released an analysis on school-level teacher turnover trends from 2021 to 2023. It uses data from nine large, unnamed urban and suburban school districts. That’s a small sample of the nation’s more than 13,000 districts, many of which are much smaller, but the researchers believe the trends there have implications for what’s happening more broadly across the country.

On average, 23 percent of teachers left their school—or a teaching role—in the 2022-23 school year. This is higher than pre-pandemic turnover in the sample, which was about 18 percent in the 2019-20 school year, but lower than the 2021-22 school year’s peak of 26 percent.

Although there was a slight downtick in school-level turnover year over year, David Rosenberg, a partner at ERS, said it’s too early to draw a trend line—and that the turnover rate is still not “in a good place.”

“Before the pandemic, we were not in a good place,” he said. “Teaching still was the same as it was in many districts 100 years ago—teachers still were leaving at a really high rate; the variation was still much greater in higher-poverty schools; the school-level churn was still significant; rookie teachers were still burning out fast.

These trends are continuing post-pandemic, the analysis found. Schools serving the greatest proportion of students from low-income families lost 29 percent of their teachers between October 2022 and October 2023, while schools with the lowest concentration of poverty lost 19 percent. When teachers change schools within their districts, they’re much more likely to move to a more affluent school.

Past research shows that high-poverty schools often have less supportive working conditions than more resourced schools, making it harder for teachers to do their jobs effectively.

Such high turnover at a school means that “when I show up at that school as a kindergartener, in three years when I’m in 3rd grade and my little sibling is coming to school, it is a radically different group of adults in the building,” Rosenberg said. “Understanding what that does in terms of instructional effectiveness, in terms of school culture, in terms of the relationships that a student can build with adults who care about them—that is incredibly challenging.”

After the 2022-23 school year, 30 percent of teachers with fewer than three years of experience and 26 percent of teachers with three to seven years of experience left their school—compared to 17 to 20 percent of more experienced teachers.

Such churn among rookie teachers is a problem because teachers make significant gains in their skills during their first five years in the classroom, Rosenberg said. And when they leave with only a couple years under their belts, school leaders, especially those in high-poverty schools, are often forced to replace them with less experienced, less effective teachers.

He said he hopes school and district leaders will look closely at the turnover rates in their own district, look for the root causes of why teachers move schools, and try to find solutions. For example, offering financial incentives to teach in high-poverty schools is one possible solution, as is offering more targeted support to rookie teachers, Rosenberg said.

3. Teacher applicant supply hasn’t caught up to demand

The ADP Research Institute, the research arm of the payroll services firm, released an analysis earlier this month that compared job openings for teachers to employment levels—and found that supply is lagging demand.

The analysis uses both Bureau of Labor Statistics data from the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey program and ADP data for K-12 teachers in public and private schools. The data cover January 2018 through January 2023.

Job openings for educators have increased significantly since 2021, but actual employment levels have remained relatively flat. (The increase in job openings might be in part due to districts using their federal pandemic relief dollars—which are expiring this fall—to create new positions.)

The imbalance between high demand and short supply should have led to higher wages, the ADP Research Institute analysis says—but it hasn’t. Teachers are losing ground on pay compared to other U.S. workers.

The analysis found that teacher salaries are growing more slowly than average wages for all employees. The national average teacher salary is about $68,000—8 percent less than the average U.S. worker’s salary, according to ADP data.

The pay gap is especially pronounced among teachers 30 and younger, the study found.

A version of this article appeared in the April 17, 2024 edition of Education Week as Some Positive Signs for the Teacher Pipeline, But It’s Not All Good. What 3 Studies Say

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