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A Coming Crisis in Teaching? Teacher Supply, Demand, and Shortages in the U.S.

A Coming Crisis in Teaching? Teacher Supply, Demand, and Shortages in the U.S.

Widespread media reports of local teacher shortages have become a hot topic in education since the summer of 2015. After years of teacher layoffs, districts began hiring again as the economy recovered from the Great Recession. Many were surprised to find they had serious difficulty finding qualified teachers for their positions, especially in fields like mathematics, science, special education, and bilingual education/English language development. A number of states greatly expanded emergency permits to allow hiring of untrained teachers to meet these demands—which is the classic definition of shortage. To date, however, there has not yet been a detailed national analysis of the sources and extent of these shortages, and the prognosis for the future.

This report details the outcomes of such a study, which analyzes evidence of teacher shortages, as well as national and regional trends in teacher supply and demand. Using several federal databases, the authors examine the current context and model projections of future trends under several different assumptions about factors influencing supply and demand, including new entrants, re-entrants, projected hires, and attrition rates. They also investigate policy strategies that might mitigate these effects based on research about effective approaches to recruitment and retention.

Understanding Causes of Teacher Shortage

Based on the evidence available, authors identify four main factors that are driving the emerging teacher shortage: A decline in teacher preparation enrollments, district efforts to return to pre-recession pupil-teacher ratios, increasing student enrollment, and high teacher attrition.

Trends in Demand

Teacher demand is on the rise, as a function of changes in student enrollment, shifts in pupil- teacher ratios, and most significantly, high levels of teacher attrition. Based on the most recent data available, the authors’ modeling shows that teacher demand increased sharply after the Great Recession, leveling off at around 260,000 teacher hires annually by 2014. Projections show a large increase in 2017–18 and a projected plateau bringing annual hires demanded to approximately 300,000 teachers a year.

  • After relatively flat student enrollment growth for the past decade, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) predicts the school-going population will increase by roughly three million students in the next decade.
  • Districts are looking to reinstate classes and programs that were cut or reduced during the Great Recession. It would require hiring an additional 145,000 teachers, on top of standard hiring needs, to reduce average pupil-teacher ratios from the current 16-to-1 to pre-recession ratios of 15.3 to 1.
  • High levels of attrition, estimated to be nearly 8% of the workforce annually, are responsible for the largest share of annual demand. The teaching workforce continues to be a leaky bucket, losing hundreds of thousands of teachers each year—the majority of them before retirement age. Changing attrition would change the projected shortages more than any other single factor.

Trends in Supply

Increased demand would not be an immediate reason for concern—if there were enough qualified teachers to enter the classroom, or if we could reduce the number of teachers leaving the classroom. Unfortunately, the supply of new teachers is atypically low and has been declining. The number of re-entrants (those who have stepped out of teaching) depends a great deal on whether policies make teaching an attractive and accessible possibility.

  • Between 2009 and 2014, the most recent years of data available, teacher education enrollments dropped from 691,000 to 451,000, a 35% reduction. This amounts to a decrease of almost 240,000 professionals on their way to the classroom in the year 2014, as compared to 2009.
  • Although teacher re-entrants make up one-third to one-half of each year’s supply (depending on aspects of the economy that make teaching more or less attractive) securing teachers even at the high end of this range will not be enough to overcome shortages. In theory, the pool of former teachers is large, but estimates suggest only around a third of teachers who exit the profession ever return.

Projections incorporating historical data on the teacher pipeline and estimates of re-entrants show a steady decline in teacher supply. According to the authors’ model, 2016 will have the lowest number of available teachers in 10 years—between 180,000 and 212,000 teachers. This projection varies depending on the percent of newly prepared teacher that actually enter the profession and the number of former teachers who return to classroom as re-entrants.

The Significance of Attrition

In times of shortages, it is most common to focus attention on how to get more teachers into the profession. However, it is equally important to focus on how to keep the teachers we have in the classroom. In fact, as the authors show in the report, reducing attrition by half could virtually eliminate shortages. Compared to high-achieving jurisdictions like Finland, Singapore, and Ontario, Canadawhere only about 3 to 4% of teachers leave in a given year—U.S. attrition rates are quite high, hovering near 8% over the last decade, and are much higher for beginners and teachers in high-poverty schools and districts. If attrition rates were reduced to the levels of those nations, the United States would eliminate overall teacher shortages.

In order to reduce attrition, we must know why people are leaving the profession, who is leaving the profession, where attrition is the greatest, and what factors are associated with different rates of attrition.

  • Why. Contrary to common belief, retirements generally constitute less than one-third of those who leave teaching in a given year. Of those who leave teaching voluntarily, most teachers list some type of dissatisfaction as very important or extremely important in their decision to leave the profession.
  • Who. Attrition varies by teacher subpopulations: Teachers with little preparation tend to leave at rates two to three times as high as those who have had a comprehensive preparation before they enter. Teachers in high-poverty and high-minority schools tend to have higher rates of attrition, as do teachers of color, who are disproportionately represented in these schools.
  • Where. Teacher attrition rates also vary considerably across the country. The South has a particularly high turnover rate (movers and leavers) compared to the Northeast, Midwest, and West. For most regions, teacher turnover is higher in cities than in suburban or rural districts.
  • Associated Factors. Administrative support is the factor most consistently associated with teachers’ decisions to stay in or leave a school. Authors’ analysis found that teachers who find their administrators to be unsupportive are more than twice as likely to leave as those who feel well-supported. Many other factors that emerge from research on attrition are also associated with the quality of school leadership, including professional learning opportunities, instructional leadership, time for collaboration and planning, collegial relationships, and decision-making input.

Variations in Shortages

Teacher shortages are not felt uniformly across all communities and classrooms, but instead affect some states, subject areas, and student populations more than others, based on differences in wages, working conditions, concentrations of teacher preparation institutions, as well as a wide range of policies that influence recruitment and retention.

State-Level Shortages: The factors influencing shortageswages, working conditions, and attrition ratesvary substantially from state to state. And even though the teacher labor market might be balanced at the state level, subjects or regions within the state may be experiencing shortages. These disparities, which are related to policy differences, create very different labor markets from one state, and even one district, to the next.

Subject Area Shortages: States across the country are currently experiencing subject area teacher shortages. In the 2015–16 school year, 48 states and the District of Columbia reported shortages in special education; 42 states plus DC did so in mathematics; and 40 states and DC reported teacher shortages in science. In a 2014–15 educator supply and demand survey, all 10 special education subgroups were listed as severe shortage areas, comprising more than half of all severe shortage areas. Along with mathematics and science, this survey identified shortages in bilingual education/teachers of English learners.

Equity Concerns: Students in high-poverty and high-minority settings bear the brunt of teacher shortages. Considerable evidence shows that shortages historically have disproportionately impacted our most disadvantaged students and that those patterns persist today. Nationally, in 2013–14, on average, high-minority schools had four times as many uncertified teachers as low-minority schools. These inequities also exist between high-poverty and low-poverty schools. When there are not enough teachers to go around, the schools with the fewest resources and least desirable working conditions are the ones left with vacancies.

Policy Recommendations

There are many policy decisions that can be made to relieve teacher shortages. These are generally aimed either at increasing the attractions to teaching or lowering the standards to become a teacher. Short-term solutions may temporarily curb the fear of empty classrooms, but, as the authors found, they can often exacerbate the problem over the long haul. For example, if teachers are hired without having been fully prepared, the much higher turnover rates that result are costly in terms of both dollars spent on the replacement process and decreases in student achievement in high-turnover schools. Long-term solutions focusing on recruitment and retention can ease the shortage while also prioritizing student learning and a strong teacher workforce. See below for full list of recommendations.


Based on research reviewed on what matters for recruiting and retaining teachers, policies should focus on:

  1. Creating competitive, equitable compensation packages that allow teachers to make a reasonable living across all kinds of communities:
    • Leverage more competitive and equitable salaries so districts serving high-need students have a fair shot at recruiting well-qualified educators.
    • Create incentives that make living as a teacher more affordable, including housing supports, childcare supports, and opportunities to teach or mentor after retirement to more effectively recruit and retain teachers.
  2. Enhancing the supply of qualified teachers for high-need fields and locations through targeted training subsidies and high-retention pathways:
    • Offer forgivable loans and service scholarships to attract and retain teachers to high-need fields and locations.
    • Create career pathways and “Grow Your Own” programs to prepare committed individuals from urban and rural school districts.
    • Establish teacher residency models for hard-to-staff districts to recruit and retain talented and diverse candidates in high-need schools while better preparing them for the challenges they will face.
  3. Improving teacher retention, especially in hard-to-staff schools, through improved mentoring, induction, working conditions, and career development:
    • Develop strong, universally available mentoring and induction programs to increase retention and help slow the revolving door of beginning teacher turnover.
    • Create productive school environments, including supportive working conditions, administrative supports, and time for teachers’ collaborative planning and professional development—all of which help attract and keep teachers in schools.
    • Strengthen principal training programs to develop principals and district leaders who can create productive teaching and learning environments, which have a major impact on a teacher’s decisions to stay or leave the classroom.
  4. Developing a national teacher supply market that can facilitate getting and keeping teachers in the places they are needed over the course of their careers:
    • Support teacher mobility by removing unnecessary interstate barriers so states with teacher surpluses in particular fields can be connected to states with corresponding shortages.


The teacher shortage provides an opportunity for the United States to take a long-term approach, as was done in medicine more than half a century ago, to mitigating current shortages while establishing a comprehensive and systematic set of strategies to build a strong teaching profession. At first, the pricetag for these investments may seem substantial, but evidence suggests that these proposals would ultimately save far more in reduced costs for teacher turnover and student underachievement. Preventing and solving teacher shortages so that all children receive high-quality instruction is essential in a 21st-century economy for the success of individuals, as well as for society as a whole.

A Coming Crisis in Teaching? Teacher Supply, Demand, and Shortages in the U.S. by Leib Sutcher, Linda Darling-Hammond, and Desiree Carver-Thomas is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Research in this area of work is funded in part by the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation. Core operating support for the Learning Policy Institute is provided by the Ford Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the Sandler Foundation.