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Tackling Teacher Shortages: What Can States and Districts Do?

Solving Teacher Shortages: COVID-19 Intensifies Crisis

This is the first blog in a series exploring the state of teacher shortages during the COVID-19 pandemic and evidence-based solutions for addressing immediate needs and building a strong and diverse teaching workforce. This post is part of the blog series, Solving Teacher Shortages

The current staffing crisis in public schools is taking center stage in communities throughout the country. A national survey from Education Week in October shows that schools struggled this fall to fill a variety of critical positions—from classroom teachers and substitutes to bus drivers—reflecting the multiple associated stresses of COVID-19 on our school systems and the people who staff them. Another survey in November found that nearly half—48%—of teachers said they had considered changing jobs in the past month, up from 32% in June.

The omicron-fueled surge is stretching schools to the breaking point, with districts around the country having to close, delay reopening after the holidays, or shift to distance learning as teachers and other staff are absent due to illness, quarantine requirements, or the need to care for sick family members. Schools are desperately trying to cover classrooms, with even superintendents stepping in to fill vacancies. Any unfilled position has the potential to undermine students’ opportunity to learn, but the difficulty many schools and districts are having hiring and retaining teachers is a particular cause for concern. Now more than ever, students need academic and social-emotional support and stability, and prepared and supported teachers are essential to meeting this need.

The reasons for teacher shortages are complex and predate the pandemic. Largely stagnant salaries over the past decade and a 19% weekly wage gap between teachers and other college-educated professionals, combined with a culture of teacher blame and punitive test-based evaluation, have taken a toll. (In the most recent federal data examining teacher attrition, test-based accountability was the single largest reason given for leaving the profession.) Even before the onslaught of the pandemic in March 2020, current and prospective teachers were responding to widespread devaluing of the profession by choosing other careers. Perhaps not surprisingly, the pandemic has heightened the teacher shortage. As one teacher from Washington state recently put it, “Many of us are pouring from that empty cup from last year; we are emotionally exhausted.”

The question is: What can states and districts do to address the teacher shortage? And what actions can help them not only recruit and retain strong teachers today, but also support and strengthen the teacher workforce long term? Policymakers need to act quickly and strategically to address the mounting crisis.

Offering Competitive Compensation

A recent RAND survey of teachers who voluntarily left teaching during the pandemic found that stress was a key driver of teachers’ decisions to leave. Key stressors included working more hours, the challenges of transitioning to remote teaching, and carrying second jobs. One-third of those who left teaching reported working 56 hours or more per week, and one-third held second jobs while teaching. A full 64% of respondents said their pay wasn’t sufficient to merit the risk or stress. These survey results, together with decades of research, suggest that offering more competitive compensation is an important strategy for both retaining current teachers and recruiting new ones.

One-third of those who left teaching reported working 56 hours or more per week, and one-third held second jobs while teaching. A full 64% of respondents said their pay wasn’t sufficient to merit the risk or stress.

States like Alabama and New Mexico are raising salaries across the board to make teaching more competitive with other higher-paid professions requiring a college degree. Other states, including Florida and Georgia, are using federal recovery dollars to provide bonuses or other financial incentives to keep teachers in the classrooms, a strategy that helps avoid concerns regarding the “fiscal cliff” when recovery funds run out. Where salaries are more of a local decision, individual districts are doing so as well. Los Angeles Unified, for example, is offering a 5% pay boost, plus retention bonuses.

Pay is also a key factor in the substitute teacher shortage, which is contributing to disruptions in classroom learning. The average pay nationally for these positions is $14 an hour, less than what some Amazon warehouse workers make. Supply and demand forces also operate in education: Districts that are significantly raising substitute pay are making headway on the problem of shortages. For example, the Chula Vista Elementary School District near San Diego is running a full-court press to tackle its sub shortage, leveraging federal recovery funds to nearly double daily pay for subs, hire a permanent substitute for each school, and launch a marketing campaign to hire substitutes.

Recruiting and Preparing Teachers

Another key element for stemming shortages is the creation of pipelines for recruitment that feature high-retention pathways into teaching, so that districts do not experience constant churn and can support teachers on the way into the profession. For example, a Learning Policy Institute study of “positive outlier” districts in California—those that have excelled at helping African American, Latinx, and White students achieve at extraordinarily high levels as measured by state assessments—found that robust educator pipelines were an essential strategy for student success, as districts leveraged strong partnerships with educator preparation programs and implemented Grow Your Own (GYO) strategies. The positive outlier districts also retained their teachers by creating favorable working conditions, a positive culture, and a climate of teacher support and development. As a result of these efforts, these districts also employed fewer teachers on substandard credentials and had lower rates of turnover—both of which strongly supported their students’ achievement.

An especially important strategy for some of these districts—one that has proven critical during the pandemic—was the creation of teacher residency programs. In these programs, school districts and teacher preparation programs partner to provide residents with a yearlong apprenticeship under the guidance of an expert mentor teacher while residents complete tightly integrated coursework. Teacher residents typically receive financial support, such as a stipend and tuition assistance, in exchange for agreeing to teach in the district for a minimum number of years. Districts are closely involved in the design of the program, offering professional development school sites, working with universities to define the program so that it prepares teachers for practices used in the district, training expert mentor teachers so novices are getting the best start on their learning, and continuing with mentoring programs that carry newly trained recruits into the district with success. States across the country, from Pennsylvania to West Virginia to Mississippi, New Mexico, and California, have taken notice of the teacher residency model’s success and are doubling down on this strategy to prepare and retain a strong and diverse teacher workforce.

We’re in a unique moment in which states and districts can leverage significant federal recovery funds and in some cases, state surpluses to support these kinds of strategic investments. Funds provided through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund and the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) Fund can be used to support the educator workforce and address teacher shortages. And, as the U.S. Departments of Education and Treasury have recently pointed out, noneducation federal COVID relief funds, including from the $350 billion allocated in the American Rescue Plan Act for the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds (SLFRF), can also be used for this purpose.

We’re in a unique moment in which states and districts can leverage significant federal recovery funds and in some cases, state surpluses to support these kinds of strategic investments.

Many states are already taking steps to solve their shortages in ways that support, strengthen, and diversify their existing workforce. Several are now using federal recovery funds to do so.

Their approaches recognize what research shows: that comprehensive preparation is key to teacher retention and effectiveness, and that making teacher preparation affordable is essential to recruiting and retaining qualified teachers, especially for candidates of color, who face greater debt burdens and economic barriers to entry.

Tennessee, for example, is using $2 million in ESSER funds for a GYO competitive grant program supporting innovative, no-cost pathways for high school seniors, education assistants, and others to earn credentials. Minnesota has designated $5 million in GEER funds to institutions of higher education, including targeted support for teacher candidates and EPP faculty that prioritizes members of underserved communities and can be used for mentorship programs, direct grants for teacher candidates, and funding for EPPs and EPP-district partnerships. California has invested more than $1 billion in state funds to support teacher preparation, including $500 million for $20,000 scholarships for teacher candidates who commit to teaching four years in a high-need school, $350 million to expand teacher residency programs, and $125 million to expand a GYO program to support classified staff in becoming teachers. Several states, including Oregon and Arizona, are providing multiple pathways for candidates to demonstrate their knowledge of the subject matter they will teach, thereby addressing the barrier that standardized teacher licensure exams present for many qualified candidates.

All of these strategies could be enhanced by further federal action that makes quality teacher preparation more accessible and affordable, such as increasing the amount and availability of teacher service scholarships, making federal loan forgiveness programs work better for teachers, providing a federal educator tax credit, and increasing federal investments in comprehensive educator preparation programs.

Supporting the Existing Workforce

Another cornerstone strategy for states and districts looking to solve their teacher shortage is to improve retention by implementing supports for their existing workforce. Teaching has always been a demanding job, but the demands of teaching through a pandemic have made it unsustainable for many teachers, causing many to leave or consider leaving. Teachers are being called upon to support increased mental health needs and behavioral challenges as students navigate the trauma of a pandemic and readjust to classroom learning. They’re guiding learning recovery, covering classes because of a sub shortage, and managing COVID protocols like masking, distancing, and hygiene practices to ensure the health and safety of their students.

By putting in place strategies to retain current teachers, states and districts can reduce their overall need for new hires. As described below, supports for the existing workforce can take many forms.

Another cornerstone strategy for states and districts looking to solve their teacher shortage is to improve retention by implementing supports for their existing workforce.

Hiring Additional Staff to Make the Workload More Manageable. One strategy is to hire additional staff to reduce caseloads and class sizes and—critically—to address the substitute teacher shortage. California, with the highest student:teacher ratio in the country, invested $1.1 billion to hire additional staff in its highest-poverty schools. Districts like Iowa City are using federal recovery funds to hire learning specialists in every school to push into classrooms to provide additional supports for learning recovery. This strategy and others, like providing high-intensity tutoring, are critical to accelerating students’ learning and relieving classroom teachers of the stress that comes with being the only person supporting students with such a wide range of needs. Elsewhere, districts are hiring permanent substitute teachers for schools, who can build ongoing relationships with students and staff and provide steady substitute coverage.

Hiring additional staff carries its own challenges, since in many cases, there simply aren’t enough qualified staff available to fill these newly created positions. One strategy is to leverage teacher candidates, who can serve as resident teachers, part-time substitutes, paraeducators, or tutors. This can be a win-win: Candidates benefit from receiving paid clinical experience, and districts are able to meet immediate staffing needs, while also building their teacher pipelines. New Mexico is one state taking this approach, allocating $37 million in federal recovery funding to hire 500 new educational assistants in classrooms and support them on the path to becoming a teacher.

Other districts are supporting existing teachers by giving them more focused time to get their work done. Portland, Maine, for example, is using one early-release day per month for self-directed teacher work time, rather than the prior practice of using all release days for staff meetings or professional development.

Strong mentoring and induction programs for beginning teachers can also make their workload more manageable and supports both their retention and their effectiveness. Illinois is one state making significant ongoing investments in mentoring for new teachers, building on the $6.5 million in federal recovery funds it invested in 2020 with an additional $6.5 million investment in 2021 to support mentoring for new teachers whose training was impacted by the pandemic and who are beginning their careers in the midst of unprecedented challenges.

Supporting Student and Educator Mental Health. Other states and districts are hiring additional counselors and school psychologists, and making other investments in mental health services, allowing teachers to better focus on their core work of teaching and learning. For example, Oklahoma is using $35 million in ESSER funding for a School Counselor Corps to hire new school counselors, mental health professionals, and recreational therapists. Nevada is spending $7.5 million in ESSER funds to hire 100 additional school-based mental health professionals, including school counselors, school social workers, school psychologists, and school mental health workers, and $1.7 million to hire a Multi-Tiered System of Support coach for every district. Other states, including Vermont and California, are investing in community schools, a strategy that provides a wide range of well-coordinated supports and services for students and their families in a trusting and collaborative school setting, and which, in turn, can support teacher retention.

Some districts are taking a lesson from corporate America and also investing in educators’ mental health and wellness, recognizing that educators are better able to support their students when their own needs are met. Indeed, nationally representative surveys from winter 2021 find that teachers were nearly twice as likely as the general adult population to report frequent job-related stress and nearly three times as likely to report symptoms of depression. Strategies to support teacher mental health include providing mental health days and other resources, such as support groups and telephone-based counseling services, and stepping up the use of surveys to both understand and address the needs of teachers.

Redesigning Schools to Meet Students’ Needs Can Help Us to Retain Teachers

These are important steps in preparing, supporting, and retaining the strong and diverse teaching workforce our students need and deserve. They are, however, only part of the equation if we are to create schools where students and the adults who support them thrive. We also need a culture shift—perhaps most urgently in our large, factory-model high schools. Young people, as well as adults, are voting with their feet and making it clear we cannot keep doing school as before—in ways that failed to serve too many students.

Some districts are responding to this reality by reimagining school systems, structures, and practices to support relationships of trust and respect, encourage youth and adult agency, and cultivate partnerships that support and engage students, educators, and families. Cleveland Metropolitan School District, for example, based on input from their Student Advisory Committee, is supporting a “culture reset” at its schools with federal recovery funds, providing both a toolkit and financial resources to guide the work but allowing each school to choose strategies, like student advisories, that can help to create a more positive school environment. Advisories, along with other strategies such as looping, home visits, and smaller learning communities, are critical to strengthening relationships among students, families, and staff and ensuring that every student is seen and supported each day.

For all of the grief and hardship this brutal pandemic has wrought on school communities, if it provides us with the imperative to redesign schools so that they are more caring places for both adults and children, we may yet come out ahead.