Recruitment & Retention What the Research Says

What School Staffing Shortages Look Like Now

By Sarah D. Sparks — September 27, 2022 3 min read
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A majority of schools report starting the 2022-23 school year off short-staffed, with openings for teachers as well as custodians, bus drivers and other critical school employees.

In a nationally representative federal survey released today, 60 percent of principals surveyed said they are struggling to fill nonteaching positions, while 48 percent reported hiring teachers has been a challenge. For both teaching and nonteaching openings, more than 6 in 10 school leaders said their biggest challenge has been finding enough candidates to apply, much less fully qualified ones.

In its ongoing Pulse survey, which has been tracking school experiences since the pandemic, the National Center for Education Statistics has repeatedly surveyed about 900 K-12 schools, most recently Aug. 9-23. While NCES did not have a baseline of exact pre-pandemic staffing levels, Chris Chapman, an NCES statistician, said, “essentially, 10 percent of principals were saying, ‘Hey, we were already understaffed, irrespective of COVID.’”

While policymakers may focus on the dearth of overall applicants, experts said the variety of staffing shortages means school and district leaders will need to undertake more targeted solutions than simply to increase recruitment across the board.

For example, the two most in-demand teaching areas are for special education and math. In the NCES data, at least three quarters of schools with open positions in special education and mathematics instruction reported they are finding it difficult to find candidates who are fully certified to teach in those areas.

But “there’s pretty good evidence that the source of challenge in those two areas [of special education and math] is different,” said Dan Goldhaber, a research director with the American Institutes of Research and the University of Washington. While he did not participate in the Pulse survey, Goldhaber found similar evidence of rising demand for special education and STEM teachers in a forthcoming study of school district job postings in Washington.

“In special education, there are lots of people that are getting special education training, but special education teachers leave special education classrooms at higher rates than we see teachers leave other classrooms. So the challenge is more associated with a teacher attrition problem,” Goldhaber said. “Whereas with STEM, the teacher attrition of [science, technology, engineering and math] teachers looks pretty comparable to general teacher attrition, but there are relatively fewer teacher candidates that are getting endorsed in STEM areas.”

Similarly, the Washington state study, previewed at the Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness conference on Saturday, found while elementary teaching shortages have gotten more attention from policymakers, high schools had more teacher vacancies.

“Everything that we are seeing in terms of job postings shows that the staffing challenge is not equal across geographies, across subject areas, and across all schools and school systems that serve different kinds of students,” Goldhaber said. “It is much more challenging to hire in schools and school systems serving high-poverty [students] and students of color, and it’s much more challenging in some specialty areas, like special education, English-language learners, and STEM.”

The outlook isn’t quite as dire as it was last year, however. Going into this summer, NCES found schools had on average more than three open staff positions. It won’t be clear until October how many of those positions schools filled. By the survey in late August, principals reported that hiring for English/language arts, math, and special education teachers turned out to be slightly less challenging this fall than they had expected at the beginning of the summer, but finding social studies teachers was more difficult than predicted.

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