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Eroding Opportunity: COVID-19’s Toll on Student Access to Well-Prepared and Diverse Teachers

Learning in the Time of COVID-19 blog series: strengthening the educator workforce by Michael DiNapoli

This post is part of LPI's Learning in the Time of COVID-19 blog series, which explores evidence-based and equity-focused strategies and investments to address the current crisis and build long-term systems capacity.

For decades, U.S. schools have struggled to provide all students with access to well-prepared and experienced teachers who reflect the rich ethnic and racial diversity of the country. Reports have repeatedly documented that students of color and other historically underserved students are disproportionately taught by new, underprepared, and inexperienced teachers—an inequity that is substantially responsible for persistent achievement gaps between students of color and their white peers.

Before the pandemic, districts across the country were grappling with ongoing teacher shortages. In the 2017–18 school year alone, these widespread shortages resulted in more than 100,000 teaching positions left vacant or staffed by individuals who were unqualified for their jobs. Likewise, nearly every state reported shortages of teachers in high-need subjects like math, science, and special education, driven by both teacher turnover and significant declines in those choosing to enter the profession. From 2009 to 2017, 340,000 fewer students enrolled in educator preparation programs, with the drop driven largely by financial concerns, including the high cost of comprehensive preparation, the burden of student loan debt, and the lack of competitive compensation. More than two-thirds of educators are weighed down with an average of $20,000 to $50,000 in student loan debt. Preparation costs and student loan debt are a particularly significant burden for students who are Black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) and contribute to difficulties in attracting and retaining a diverse teaching force.

COVID-19 has only served to worsen these pre-pandemic conditions. According to U.S. Department of Education data for the 2020–21 school year, to date 43 states are reporting shortages in math teachers, 42 in science teachers, and 44 in special education teachers. In addition to expected reductions in those entering the profession, we’re seeing concerning signs of increased turnover as stressful working conditions and health concerns are prompting some to seek early retirement and others to leave the profession. At the same time, school communities are grappling with layoffs that are destabilizing their educator workforce, including teachers and support personnel. And local and state policymakers are bracing themselves for future budget cuts—and the layoffs that go along with them.

In addition to expected reductions in those entering the profession, we’re seeing concerning signs of increased turnover as stressful working conditions and health concerns are prompting some to seek early retirement and others to leave the profession.

Warning Signs of a Shrinking Pipeline of New Teachers

Unlike the Great Recession, when a weak job market drove up college enrollment, the pandemic is leading to a decline in enrollment in higher education. Data on teacher preparation program enrollment is not yet available, but early signs are worrisome. Undergraduate enrollment is down by nearly 4% (a concerning statistic, given that 80% of educators begin teaching with a bachelor’s degree). Enrollment declines are steepest among Native American and Black students. Enrollment at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), which are a significant source of new educators, is down 5.5%. Alarmingly, 22% fewer students from the high school class of 2020 enrolled directly in college after graduation, with the greatest declines seen at schools serving students from low-income families, students of color, and students in urban areas.

Enrollment in community colleges, which are more racially and economically diverse than their four-year counterparts, has also dropped—by more than 10%—with public two-year HBCUs experiencing a more than 20% enrollment decline. These declines threaten enrollment in traditional teacher preparation programs, as well as in 2+2 educator preparation programs, which help diverse candidates become teachers through partnerships between 2-year institutions of higher education and their 4-year counterparts.

An August 2020 Census Bureau survey provides insight into the causes for the drop in higher education enrollment. Alongside the shift to distance learning and their fears of getting COVID-19, survey respondents cited their inability to pay as a factor in their decision to forgo college. Pandemic-related layoffs have hurt low-income and BIPOC communities the hardest, including requiring recent high school graduates and current college students to forgo their education in order to help support their families.

California Teachers and COVID-19: How the Pandemic is Impacting the Teacher Workforce, a March 2021 report from LPI, details how teacher burnout, retirements, and resignations have exacerbated critical shortages in California districts and could lead to even worse shortages to come. The report describes how state investments can ensure a strong and stable teacher workforce by funding high-retention pathways into the profession and providing educator development and supports.

Unprecedented Teaching Conditions Spurring Turnover

Since the first COVID-19 restrictions were put in place last March, teachers have been on the front lines of an unprecedented effort to adapt teaching and learning to our new and often-shifting reality. The challenges they report include longer hours, inadequate support, and strain on their mental and physical health. For example, 75% of National Board Certified teachers surveyed last August and September reported working more hours, with 20% reporting working more than 15 extra hours a week. About one in five of these respondents—who are expert, experienced teachers—stated that professional learning supports from their schools and districts were “not at all adequate.” A survey of Colorado superintendents revealed widespread fears of teacher burnout resulting from the additional burdens associated with enforcing safety protocols, addressing the impact of lost instructional time, teaching in hybrid situations (online and in person), and abruptly switching to fully remote learning when classes must quarantine.

Since the first COVID-19 restrictions were put in place last March, teachers have been on the front lines of an unprecedented effort to adapt teaching and learning to our new and often-shifting reality. The challenges they report include longer hours, inadequate support, and strain on their mental and physical health.

These and other factors are already taking a toll. Surveys from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), and the National Education Association (NEA) all show that many educators are planning to retire early, take a leave of absence, or exit the profession entirely. In an August 2020 poll, 45% of principals said pandemic working conditions were “accelerating their plans to leave the profession.” In the NEA poll (released in August 2020), 28% of all teachers and 43% of Black teachers said they’re more likely to retire early or leave the profession. This emerging trend is worrying, given the outsized role that turnover plays in teacher shortages. Prior to the pandemic, research showed that about 90% of the annual nationwide demand for teachers is created by teachers leaving the profession.

There’s also evidence of a shortage of substitute teachers to tap when classroom teachers fall ill, are quarantined, or are otherwise unable to work. For example, a fall EdWeek survey found that about one-third of schools and districts are unable to hire a substitute for roughly 50% of their absent teachers. Eighty percent of respondents reported leaving classes uncovered. Schools in California, Idaho, Michigan, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Wisconsin, West Virginia, and other states have had to close temporarily when teachers quarantined and substitute coverage came up short. In some instances, the lack of qualified substitute teachers has resulted in states and districts lowering the bar for these positions, including allowing individuals with just a high school diploma to serve as substitute teachers. Jhone Ebert, Nevada’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, explained, in a January New York Times article, “We have to go to … extremes to get adults temporarily in the room to support our children.”

Raising Demands and Reducing Capacity: COVID-19 and the Educator Workforce

We’re hearing a lot of conflicting scenarios and projections related to the teacher workforce come fall. Indicators of teacher demand and supply—including the number of teaching and other positions funded, the number required to deliver instruction safely, turnover rates, and the supply of new teachers coming out of teacher preparation programs—can help us begin to understand the impact of COVID-19 on the educator workforce. Read the blog >

News of Layoffs and Fears of More

Employment in public schools is at its lowest level since the year 2000, despite there being about 3.5 million more students in schools today. The latest job numbers indicate an over 8% decrease in public school employment, meaning students have access to about 676,000 fewer educators and school support personnel than they did at this time last year. Although many of these cuts are non-teaching positions, teacher layoffs have occurred or are anticipated, based on budget conditions, in Hawaii, Missouri, and New York, among others.

And this could get worse. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) has projected that state budgets will likely see a reduction of 11% this fiscal year and 10% in the next fiscal year. An earlier estimate by LPI showed that a 10% reduction in state funding would result in a 5% reduction in the teacher workforce—or more than 173,000 teachers losing their jobs. During the Great Recession, cuts in teaching positions had the greatest impact on BIPOC students and students from low-income families. The cuts also had long-term implications for the profession, as the widespread teacher layoffs are widely believed to have been one of the causes for the significant drop in enrollment in teacher preparation programs.

Addressing Shortages Requires a Focused Effort

The impact of COVID-19 requires more of our nation’s educators, including navigating remote, hybrid, and in-person instruction; following safety protocols; and supporting the social, emotional, and academic needs of students and families. The $67.5 billion provided for k–12 schools to date is far short of the investments needed to support students through the pandemic and does not include specific investments to stabilize the educator pipeline and workforce.

A number of federal opportunities are supported by a large number of education and disability rights organizations and are key levers to strengthening the pipeline into the profession.

  • At this moment of threatened layoffs due to state budget cuts, an educator stabilization fund, like the one enacted during the Great Recession in 2010, could help protect educator jobs in high-need districts, helping to avert the deepening shortages that will otherwise occur.
  • The Teacher Quality Partnership Grant program, which is currently funded at only about 17% of its originally authorized level, includes funding for teacher residencies that increase recruitment and retention of diverse and highly effective teachers in high-need districts. Increasing funding to its original amount of $300 million would spur program expansion, including providing teacher candidates with increased financial support to offset expenses.
  • The federal service scholarship program for teachers—the TEACH Grant—provides about $4,000 a year in grant aid for educator preparation for those who commit to teach a high-need subject in a high-need school for four years. The award amount for this program has not been increased for more than a decade, despite the rising cost of college. Raising the award amount to $8,000 a year would better align the program with the current cost of comprehensive preparation, lower affordability barriers, and keep becoming a teacher within reach for those who have been hit hardest by COVID-19.
  • Supports for educator preparation programs at HBCUs and minority-serving institutions (MSIs) could be strengthened through investments in the Augustus F. Hawkins Centers of Excellence program, which could allow more students at these institutions to receive high-quality preparation.
  • The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Part D’s personnel preparation program, which is funded at $90.2 million this year, receives less funding today in unadjusted dollars than it did in 2010. Raising investments in personnel preparation to $300 million annually would expand programs that prepare specialized instructional support personnel, special educators, early educators, and the higher education faculty and researchers that support their preparation. Likewise, through the use of scholarships, IDEA-D can reduce affordability barriers for prospective educators. These investments can help address the severe and growing shortages of special education teachers that are widespread in the country.
  • As free college proposals are debated, policymakers could explore putting public servants, like teachers, at the front of the line for a debt-free education and extending tuition-free guarantees for undergraduates to graduate students who are training to become teachers. Removing inequitable debt burdens and incentivizing service in areas of need can also be supported by reforming the Teacher Loan Forgiveness program to make it more attractive to prospective teachers—for example, by requiring that teachers’ federal student loans are paid by the government (instead of the teacher) until the service requirement is met. Once the service requirement is met, the program could be designed to retire debt completely.

No Time to Wait

During this volatile time, federal policymakers are in a unique position to help stabilize both the educator pipeline and the current educator workforce. These efforts can’t happen soon enough, as a well-prepared, stable, and diverse educator workforce is essential to supporting students now and in a post-pandemic world.