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Ninety percent of schools have increased the number of substitute teachers on staff or are trying to, according to a July 2022 RAND report, but schools are struggling to find new hires, feeding into an overall perception of shortages. Credit: Terra Fontriest for The Hechinger Report

The stories are scary. The teaching profession, according to CNN in early 2022, was “in crisis.” The Wall Street Journal reported in February 2022 that burned out teachers were exiting for jobs in the private sector. House lawmakers in Washington devoted an entire hearing to “Tackling Teacher Shortages” in May 2022. And on Aug. 3, 2022, the Washington Post printed this headline: “‘Never seen it this bad’: America faces catastrophic teacher shortage.”

But education researchers who study the teaching profession say the threat is exaggerated. 

“Attrition is definitely up, but it’s not a mass exodus of teachers,” said Dan Goldhaber, a labor economist at the American Institutes for Research (AIR), a nonprofit research organization. 

Goldhaber says that the number of teachers leaving the field is in line with historical patterns. The rate of teachers quitting and retiring from the profession, according to Goldhaber’s calculations in one state, Washington, was about 11 percent in 2020-21 – actually a smidge lower than it was in 2006-07, another year of high turnover when a strong job market lured educators away. Most departures were filled with new hires. Goldhaber estimates that in a school with 1,000 students, there was half an unfilled vacancy, on average, in the fall of 2021 – the most recent data he has analyzed.

Indeed, the U.S. Department of Education released a national survey of more than 800 schools on Aug. 4, 2022 and found that each school, on average, had about three unfilled teaching openings in June 2022. That’s a time of active hiring and those positions could still be filled before the 2022-23 school year starts.

“Among researchers, I think we’ve reached a consensus that there hasn’t been an exodus of teachers during the pandemic,” said Heather Schwartz, a researcher at RAND, a nonprofit research organization, which regularly surveys school districts around the country about their staffing. “I don’t see many district leaders saying we have a serious, severe shortage of teachers. I don’t see the crisis.”

“Are we going to have such extreme shortages, that we can’t even keep the doors open for schools?” said Schwartz. “No, that’s not where policymakers need to spend their energy.”

Instead, as counterintuitive as it might seem, Schwartz found that 77 percent of schools went on a hiring spree in 2021-22 as $190 billion in federal pandemic funds started flowing, according to a RAND survey released on July 19, 2022. “Yes there’s a shortage in the sense that they have unfilled open positions. But it’s sort of a misnomer to say the word ‘shortage’ because compared to pre-pandemic, there’s more people employed at the school.”

Imagine that Google decided to expand its ranks of computer programmers. It might be hard to find so many software engineers and it would feel like a shortage to IT hiring managers everywhere. That’s what’s happening at schools. 

To understand why teacher shortages became a dominant story line, it’s helpful to start the story before the pandemic when complaints about teacher shortages were common. But Goldhaber said there never were shortages everywhere or among all types of teachers. Shortages were concentrated in low-income schools and certain specialties. Wealthy suburban schools might have dozens of applicants for an elementary school teacher, while schools in poor urban neighborhoods and remote rural areas might struggle to find certified teachers in special education or in teaching students who are learning English.

The reasons for the different shortages varied. Many teachers go into special education but soon quit the classroom. Teaching students with disabilities is a hard job. Fewer aspiring teachers opt to specialize in math or science instruction. There’s less interest at the start. Low-income schools have problems at both ends. Fewer people want to teach at low-income schools and once there, departures are high.

Historically, principals have had the most trouble finding teachers in these specialties:  special education, English language learners and science and math

Source: Dan Goldhaber with data from National Center for Education Statistics Schools and Staffing Surveys and National Teacher and Principal Surveys

When the pandemic hit in March 2020, schools had their usual rate of teacher departures. But hiring shut down along with everything else. Principals found it virtually impossible to to replace teachers who had left. 

“Imagine this big slowdown of hiring,” said RAND’s Schwartz. “And then you come into the next school year, and you have a shortage of staff — not because there’s tons of people who quit, but because you haven’t refreshed your roster.”

Many teachers fell ill from COVID or took days off to take care of sick family members during the 2020-21 school year.

“So we had this temporary shortage of teachers who are on campus or on the ground on a given day,” said Schwartz. “Districts didn’t have enough substitute teachers to fill those day- to-day shortages.”

The two problems compounded and created extreme shortages. Students sat in classrooms without teachers. Schools closed as variants surged through their communities.

The script suddenly flipped during the 2021-22 school year as the federal government sent pandemic recovery funds to schools. Schools not only resumed hiring to fill their vacancies, they increased their staffing levels to help kids catch up from the missed instruction. Many principals hired extra bodies to keep in reserve in anticipation of new coronavirus variants. 

The biggest areas of staff expansion were among substitute teachers, paraprofessionals or teachers’ aides, and tutors. Ninety percent of the schools surveyed by RAND have already increased their ranks of substitute teachers or are still trying to hire more. To lure substitutes, schools increased pay from an average of $115 a day to $122 a day, inflation adjusted, which Schwartz says is a larger increase than in the retail industry.

Schwartz doesn’t yet have data on the exact number of new hires, but she is confident that schools have increased head counts. More than 40 percent of school districts surveyed also said they have already or intend to increase the number of ordinary classroom teachers in elementary, middle and high schools compared with pre-pandemic levels. 

Source: Districts Continue to Struggle with Staffing, Political Polarization, and Unfinished Instruction, Selected Findings from the Fifth American School District Panel Survey, RAND

“This expansion of hiring is confusing if you’re like, wait, there’s huge teacher shortages,” said Schwartz. “It’s an ironic problem. So many schools were having to scramble just to stay open and staff during severe shortages. Now we have this weird other problem of overstaffing.”

It’s understandable that so many of my media colleagues are writing about shortages. States have been reporting shortages to the federal government, and education advocates, such as Dan Domenech, executive director of the School Superintendents Association, have been sounding alarm bells. Part of the confusion is how shortages are counted. Goldhaber explained to me that there’s no standardized way of defining or documenting a shortage and if even one district among hundreds reported difficulty in hiring a particular type of teacher, some states will document that as a statewide shortage in that category.  Louisiana, for example, reports that it is experiencing shortages among 80 percent of its teaching force.

By contrast, RAND’s analysis is more refined. “We asked schools what shortages they expect for the 22-23 school year and they did not anticipate a huge shortage,” said Schwartz. Three-quarters of the districts said they expect a shortage, but most of them, 58 percent, said it would be a small shortage. Only 17 percent of districts anticipated a large shortage of teachers.

Schwartz says her biggest worry isn’t current teacher shortages, but teacher surpluses when pandemic funds run out after 2024. School budgets will be further squeezed from falling U.S. birth rates because funding is tied to student enrollment. Schools are likely to lay off many educators in the years ahead.  “It’s not easy for schools to shed staff and maintain quality of instruction for students,” said Schwartz.

That won’t be good for students.

This story about teacher shortages was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Jill Barshay writes the weekly “Proof Points” column about education research and data, covering a range of topics from early childhood to higher education. She taught algebra to ninth-graders for...

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  1. Dept of Education (NCES.EDU.GOV) indicates a decrease in the number of students by approximately 900,000 in 2022. Statistica.com indicates an increase in the number of teachers by 20,000 in 2022. That does not seem like a dearth of teachers. What may be happening is that the class size/teacher is decreasing, or it could be that people are simply leaving some areas of the country to go to other more desirable locales. Shortage? Maybe not. At least not as much as a distribution of labor issue, mostly fixed by changing the pay scales where needed.

  2. Response to Proof Points: Federal monies were a hiring duct tape for schools. Policymakers cannot afford to stop looking for a long-term strategy for special education students.

    While threats of a national teacher crisis might be overblown, the needs of special education students are not, and those needs cannot be met without highly qualified educators. Right now, 98% of the nation’s schools have a shortage of special education teachers. The shortage disproportionately affects vulnerable students with disabilities because their classroom needs are specialized in ways that providing them with a teacher who is not trained to follow their IEP is harmful. Policymakers and educators cannot afford to slow up the push for special education support because failure to provide resources for these students represents both equity and fiscal sustainability challenges for schools. Relying on duct tape staffing solutions and shifting away from supporting special education students is the root cause of the quick turnaround of special education teachers in districts across the country.

    Without a targeted response to acknowledge neuro and physically diverse students, we perpetuate the inequities in education reform and leave local education systems vulnerable to lawsuits. Policymakers and education leaders have tried short-term innovations to improve service delivery to students with disabilities. These have included partnering with nonprofit organizations to help general education teachers better support special education students. There are also grow your programs in rural areas that help districts recruit new teachers to fill local needs. Some also give small incentives to encourage special education teachers to stay in the classroom. These solutions were small steps in the right direction, but the academic performance gap between general education and student with disabilities represent a marathon distance to get the necessary improvements on national assessments.

    The $190 billion boon in funds from the federal government has fueled hiring into historically understaffed schools. The National Association of School Psychologists recommends a ratio of 1 psychologist to 500 students, but the number has been more than twice that in most schools. Schools are also using unqualified substitutes in the classroom to help meet the special education demand, like in Kansas, where only 70% of the special education substitutes were classified as highly qualified before the usual high rate of turnover for this class of educator was compounded by stress from the pandemic. Families sue districts because these tactics do not adequately meet the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) standards. The system-wide factors like the total enrollment of students, the prevalence of students with disabilities, and the ratio between general education and special education teachers have not been fixed.

    The federal funds are not a real solution because they were an unprecedented response to a national crisis, giving monies to schools that have been historically underfunded and who will have no way to maintain that same cash supply later. Not planning ahead because of a windfall from the federal government, only delays the problem, further marginalizes teachers, and forces them from their crucial roles in the classroom working with students who are legally entitled to the support. The rates of students in special education continue to increase across the country, so one district working without full support can not solve the problem. Organizations like The Hunt Institute are building a coalition to work with state leaders to think about the national shortage of educators, but it needs to be a national movement to succeed.

    The environment students with disabilities had as they returned to in-person learning last spring was not what families needed. Students needed to return to the classroom environments focused on helping them recover from the pandemic learning loss. These students missed out on mandated services at the onset of the pandemic. The lack of in-person instruction time, parents struggling with a lack of take-home resources, and increased household stress around care derailed learning. Students with disabilities were hit the hardest because they relied on these additional supports that schools could not fulfill during the pandemic. In return to the classroom, students still don’t have the care and resources they need because the educators trained to support them could not stay in the profession and emigrate to other professions or roles in schools.

  3. First, AIR stopped being a reliable source when they became invested in manufacturing standardized state tests for enormous profits- the conflict of interest is astounding. Second, states publish critical teaching shortages and teacher shortage lists every year, https://www.fldoe.org/core/fileparse.php/20042/urlt/7-2.pdf , and state data is much more reliable than whatever you pieced together, but it would take a bit more effort on your part to write a credible piece. The old fall back on Special Ed, higher level maths and sciences and ESOL being the most difficult to to staff doesn’t ring true when some of the largest states, like Florida – have the largest critical shortages in English and Reading, and that would be true for many states if you took the time to research each state. Touting “substitutes” as substantial teachers is ludicrous, and the amount of full-time subs holding down the fort right now is absolutely not comparable to any year since I’ve started teaching. In the last 20 years, there have never been this many “full-time” subs or vacancies when the school year started in my district or the surrounding three districts – and since those numbers have all been released, I’m wondering if you are going to continue to grab data from AIR – the chickenhawk standardized test corporation still trying to masquerade as a “non-profit research institute”? Clearly the “data” from both 2020 and 2021 is incomplete, but someone that did a much better job than you researching the shortages by geographic location instead of blanket national averages, has definitely provided a clearer picture with ongoing research and updates. Your reporting and sources are egregious and half-baked. While veteran teachers might not have resigned in percentages much different from years past, the turnover for younger teachers has doubled in many states, and more importantly, the number of students graduating from colleges with education specialities have decreased, as have the amount of student enrolling in college and university to pursue education majors. https://www.the74million.org/article/new-research-thousands-of-full-time-teacher-jobs-open-in-localized-state-shortages/

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