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Teacher Shortages Take Center Stage

Solving Teacher Shortages: Causes and Solutions

This is the second 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

On September 9, 2021, San Lorenzo Unified School District (USD) Superintendent Daryl Camp posted a picture of himself on Twitter in front of a classroom of students. The tweet read, “The teacher and substitute/guest teacher shortage is a real issue. In San Lorenzo USD, directors, principals, assistant superintendents and the superintendent are in classrooms trying to support school sites. Teachers are subbing during their prep time way too much.”

The conditions in San Lorenzo USD, a 10,500-student school district in the San Francisco Bay Area, are being felt throughout California and in big and small districts across the country. A new report from the Learning Policy Institute, based on a fall 2021 survey of a sample of California districts, found that two thirds of the districts surveyed faced an increased number of vacancies over pre-COVID-19 years and experienced greater challenges in filling these positions. According to district leaders, increased retirements and resignations contributed to vacancy challenges, as did the critical need to support students by hiring additional staff with pandemic recovery funds.

Even before the holidays, shortages of both teachers and substitutes had been debilitating in some California districts, sometimes forcing schools to shut down in-person learning. Then, as the omicron variant raged across the country, at least two dozen California districts reportedly closed schools in the month of January. This mirrored a wave of school closures nationwide.

In many ways, the pandemic has exacerbated teacher workforce issues in schools and subject areas that have been stretched thin for a number of years. A 2018 estimate, for example, found that U.S. schools were short at least 100,000 teachers, and a 2016 survey found staggering shortages of qualified teachers among California school districts. In California and around the country, teacher shortages in hard-to-staff subjects—math, science, special education, and bilingual education—continue to be widespread and severe. On par with pre-COVID-19 years, 2021–22 data from the U.S. Department of Education shows that 48 states and Washington, DC, reported having shortages of special education teachers; 43 states and DC reported math teacher shortages; and 41 states and DC had shortages of science teachers. Because of these long-standing conditions, even small changes in teacher supply and demand during the pandemic have resulted in serious disruption for schools that had already been struggling to fill teacher vacancies.

The Impact of Teacher Shortages

Teacher shortages can significantly depress student achievement, as schools often cancel courses due to vacancies or staff classes with substitutes and underprepared teachers who are not certified to teach their subject matter. Underprepared teachers leave their schools at 2 to 3 times the rate of those who enter with comprehensive preparation. High turnover rates, in turn, can contribute to staff instability that disrupts relationships with students and other teachers, undermines professional learning, and impedes collaboration, all of which are critical to creating the supportive environments students need after nearly two years of disrupted learning.

The research is clear that these shortages—including high vacancy rates and classes staffed by substitutes, novices, and uncertified teachers—disproportionately impact schools serving more students of color and students from low-income families. Reports suggest this continues to be true in the COVID-19 era. A Washington state study conducted in fall 2021 shows that teacher vacancy rates tended to be substantially greater in high-poverty districts compared with low-poverty districts.

Factors Influencing Shortages

The conditions driving shortages vary across districts and states as a function of local policies, compensation, working conditions, and more. However, there are a few trends that have been influencing shortages across the country during the pandemic. I’ll take each in turn.

First, there has been a steady decline in candidates pursuing teacher preparation, as the rising cost of college and declining teacher salaries make teaching unaffordable. (In 2019, teacher weekly wages were at least 19% less than those of other college-educated professionals, even after taking the difference in the length of the work year into account.) Before COVID-19 hit, enrollment in teacher preparation programs was already declining—down by one third between 2010 and 2018. Since the fall of 2019, undergraduate enrollment has dropped by 6.6% overall and 14.1% in community colleges. These declines are worrisome, given the large majority of educators who earn their credentials in an undergraduate program and given community colleges are often a crucial component of Grow Your Own programs, which prepare diverse local community members to teach in their local districts.

As the need for student support has increased during the pandemic, many districts are using federal dollars to hire new teachers. This increased demand for critical new teaching positions has put even more pressure on a limited supply of fully credentialed teachers.

Finally, teacher shortages are also impacted by teacher turnover rates. Many school systems have reported higher rates of teacher retirement and resignation during the pandemic. Michigan, for example, saw a 44% jump in midyear retirements between 2020 and 2021. Similarly, in California, statewide teacher retirement data show a 26% increase in retirements in the second half of 2020 compared with the same period in 2019. One large California district saw increases of 25% in retirements, 66% in resignations, and 50% in leaves of absence since the pandemic began.

Responding to Teacher Shortages

Some states and districts are responding to shortages by reducing the qualifications to enter the classroom, a practice that undermines students’ opportunity to learn. According to a survey of district leaders nationally, 16% of the new teachers hired in 2020–21 were individuals who were not fully prepared—a nearly 80% increase since 2014–15. In California, the number of substandard credentials and permits issued to underprepared teachers has nearly tripled since 2012–13, and this school year, every district in our new study filled some vacancies with these underprepared teachers.

Some states and districts are responding to shortages by reducing the qualifications to enter the classroom, a practice that undermines students’ opportunity to learn.

Similarly, with more than 1,000 teacher vacancies in Connecticut, the State Board of Education voted to authorize emergency certification that allows individuals to fill teaching positions for subjects in which they are not certified—a practice that Connecticut had ended nearly 30 years ago as part of a sweeping set of reforms that invested in teacher knowledge, skills, and compensation and ended the shortages the state had experienced previously. Some states are also removing requirements for substitute teachers. Oregon’s new emergency substitute teacher license can be awarded to individuals who have not earned a bachelor’s degree. These actions, similar to efforts across the country, point to the need for sustained investments to address a long-standing problem.

As noted in Tackling Teacher Shortages: What Can States and Districts Do?, forward-looking policymakers and education leaders are leveraging federal and, in some cases, state dollars to advance evidence-based solutions that address the immediate crisis and build for the long term. Between 2016 and 2019, the California legislature invested nearly $300 million to address teacher shortages. In that period, California has seen an uptick in teacher preparation enrollments—an early indicator that the state’s multiyear investments in the teacher pipeline are beginning to make an impact. For example, with $45 million invested in the California Classified School Employee Teacher Credentialing Program, the state has supported paraprofessionals and other classified staff in earning more than 1,300 teaching credentials since 2016–17, with more in the pipeline. Despite this modest growth, however, teacher supply continues to lag behind demand for teachers in the state.

In 2021, buoyed by a state budget surplus and federal recovery dollars, the California legislature allocated nearly 1 billion additional dollars to high-retention pathways into teaching through the Classified School Employee Program as well as the Golden State Teacher Grant Program and the Teacher Residency Grant Program. These record-setting investments will help the state continue to grow its teacher workforce through recruiting, preparing, and retaining well-prepared teachers.

Some California districts, for their part, are leveraging the state funds available to build their teacher workforces. For example, districts are using Teacher Residency Grant Program funds to launch residency programs in partnership with teacher preparation programs. These yearlong apprenticeships provide residents with extensive clinical experience under the guidance of an expert mentor teacher and with tightly integrated coursework. Residents receive financial support and commit to teaching in the district for a minimum number of years. Some California districts, such as Los Angeles USD and San Francisco USD, have well-established residencies, which have helped them anticipate the available supply of new teachers for hard-to-staff schools and subject areas during the uncertainty of the pandemic.

Districts are also increasing compensation, streamlining recruitment strategies, and improving teaching conditions to retain the teachers they have. Some districts, for example, are adding new staff positions—counselors, social workers, instructional coaches—to support students and teachers. According to one California district leader, “We’ve created smaller classrooms for our math students at the high school level. We have added more counseling and social-emotional learning positions, social workers, after-school tutoring, [and] summer programs to address [the loss of instructional time]. There are quite a few extra positions put into our plan using the [recovery] money from the government.” These crucial positions will support student learning recovery and well-being while also easing the heavy workload on teachers.

No Time to Lose

Solving long-standing teacher shortages that have been further entrenched by the pandemic will require a comprehensive approach to supporting the teacher pipeline. States and districts would be wise to invest federal recovery dollars in improving teacher preparation, recruitment, and retention. Allowable uses for these funds include teacher residencies; Grow Your Own programs, like California’s Classified School Employee Program; and preparation and professional development, specifically for special education teachers. Efforts like these grow the pool of well-prepared teachers who are more likely to stay in the profession. The early impacts of California’s investments on the teacher workforce show that resources targeted at evidence-based strategies can help districts meet their short-term needs while also supporting a long-term strategy for building the teacher workforce.