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The Federal Role in Ending Teacher Shortages

An empty classroom.

Teacher shortages have reentered the national consciousness in a major way, as quarantines and the intense stresses created by the COVID-19 pandemic drained teaching staffs, causing some schools to close temporarily for lack of staff. According to the U.S. Department of Education, all 50 states reported shortages in more than one area for the 2022–23 school year. Among them were especially widespread shortages of special education teachers, science teachers, and math teachers. The National Center for Education Statistics reported that nearly half of all U.S. schools were experiencing shortages. And in 2020–21, more than one third (34%) of newly entering teachers were not certified for their assignments—a reflection of shortages, since state rules allow such teachers to be hired only if fully qualified individuals cannot be found.

To handle the shortages, schools have increased class sizes, canceled course offerings, added duties to the responsibilities of existing teachers, and hired underqualified individuals to fill the positions—all of which undermine students’ learning. At a time when the nation is necessarily focused on learning recovery for students impacted by the pandemic, resolving shortages should be a national education priority.

Overall, professional teaching conditions in the United States compare poorly with those of high-achieving countries where teachers are better prepared, better paid, and better supported throughout their careers. As a consequence, they are more likely to stay in the profession for an entire career. Much higher attrition rates for U.S. teachers are a function of dissatisfactions with teaching, ranging from salaries and working conditions to lack of decision-making input. Attrition, in turn, is a huge driver of teacher shortages, as roughly 9 of 10 teachers hired each year are replacing colleagues who left, most for reasons other than retirement.

U.S. teaching conditions today are rooted in the factory-model school structures designed a century ago and reinforced in recent years, including heavy workloads; school schedules offering little time for relationship building with students and families or for collaboration with other teachers; standardized curriculum that fails to meet the needs of diverse learners; extensive testing; and the hiring of teachers with little training who come and go quickly, adding to staff instability and depressing student achievement.

Recent shortages related to the pandemic and associated impacts have called attention to the intensity of teachers’ struggle for professional status and teaching conditions at a time when there is also recognition of the need to change learning conditions for students. The moment may be ripe for the set of transformations needed to develop a much stronger education profession in this country. The United States needs a nationwide Marshall Plan for teaching, similar to that enacted after World War II to rebuild Europe, but for rebuilding the teaching profession. A Marshall Plan for teaching should focus the powers of the federal government on supporting recruitment, preparation, support, and retention in teaching in seven key areas:

  1. Increase educators’ net compensation through tax credits, housing subsidies, and salary incentives. A substantial body of research demonstrates that teachers’ wages affect the quality of those who choose to enter the teaching profession and how long they stay once they get in. Although teacher salaries are determined at the state or local levels, leaving a limited role for the federal government in determining compensation, there are nonetheless a few powerful actions that the federal government could take to increase educators’ bottom-line finances. Federal actions could include offering incentives to states and districts to raise and equalize salaries, providing refundable tax credits and/or housing subsidies to early childhood and K–12 educators, and offering financial aid to eliminate education debt, as noted below.
  2. Strengthen recruitment by making teacher preparation debt-free. College debt influences entry and retention in teaching, as well as teacher diversity. A Marshall Plan for teaching would enhance compensation and strengthen recruitment by expanding service scholarships and loan forgiveness programs to fully cover the cost of comprehensive preparation at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Because fully prepared novices are less than half as likely to leave teaching after the first year compared to those who lack student teaching and other key elements of training, shortages caused by annual churn could be reduced if districts could hire better-prepared teachers.

    While the federal government offers some such programs, they have dwindled in value over time and are inadequate to meet recruitment needs, given the debt students must accrue to enter teaching and the lower salaries teachers can currently expect to earn in relation to other fields requiring a college education.

    To address the challenge of the rising costs of higher education and student loan debt, there are a number of steps the federal government could take to fully cover the cost of teacher preparation, with a focus on those teachers preparing to teach in a high-need field and/or high-need school who agree to stay in teaching for several years. The federal government could completely cover teachers’ monthly federal student loan payments while they are teaching and retire their debt after a set number of years that aligns with their service commitment. Congress could increase the size of the nation’s teacher service scholarship, the TEACH grant, to better align with the full cost of teacher preparation and reform the loan conversion penalty. The federal government could also leverage broad-based workforce “learn and earn” (e.g., registered apprenticeships) and national service programs to help educators afford comprehensive preparation.
  3. Support improved preparation by expanding high-retention pathways into teaching. Teachers’ effectiveness and likelihood of staying in teaching are both strongly influenced by the quality of preparation they receive. As the federal government does in medicine, a Marshall Plan for teaching could support the expansion of improved preparation models that ensure teachers are well enough prepared to stay and be effective in the profession, including residency programs, Grow Your Own programs, and other pathways shown to retain teachers, as well as teaching partnership schools that function like teaching hospitals. Congress could provide robust and sustained investment in programs such as the Teacher Quality Partnership program, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act personnel preparation provisions, and the Augustus F. Hawkins Centers of Excellence (Hawkins) Program that builds the capacity of historically Black colleges and universities, tribal colleges and universities, and minority-serving institutions of higher education to prepare teachers. These programs together only received approximately $240 million from the federal government in fiscal year 2023, a fraction of what some individual states have invested. Federal policymakers can work to ensure that annual funding measures include substantially increased investments in high-retention pathways into the profession and that funding encourages states to create an infrastructure for stronger program models.
  4. Provide high-quality mentoring for all beginning teachers. Research shows that new teachers who receive little mentoring are twice as likely to leave the classroom as those who are well-mentored by expert veterans and receive induction supports. However, according to analysis conducted in 2016, only 16 states have dedicated funding for teacher induction programs. Novice teachers are disproportionately concentrated in schools serving students from low-income families and students of color, leaving already under-resourced schools bearing the financial and staffing burden of supporting large numbers of new teachers. To make high-quality mentoring and induction more broadly available, especially in under-resourced districts and schools, the federal government could create a program to provide matching grants to states and districts that implement research-based induction programs.
  5. Increase investments that enable educators to expand and share expertise. Research shows that teachers become more effective and are more likely to stay in the profession if they can continue learning in collegial environments and if they can share their skills and expertise with others. Investments to expand and share educator expertise should be designed to strengthen professional development for all educators, ensuring that it is readily available, content-rich, collaborative, and job-embedded. More robust funding for Title II-A and Title III of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which fund educator training and development, could support high-quality professional learning and collaboration opportunities. In addition, federal incentives can focus on helping states attract and retain expert, experienced teachers—such as those certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards—who can provide teaching and mentoring in high-need schools and subjects.
  6. Incentivize the redesign of schools to support teaching and learning. Teachers stay in environments where they feel they can be successful with students—which requires the redesign of schools so that they can support strong relationships between and among students, educators, and families and can personalize education in ways that allow students to succeed. Federal investments could encourage schools to break free of the factory model and launch 21st-century approaches to education that support better teaching and learning. This might take the form of programs such as the federal Smaller Learning Communities Program previously authorized under both the Improving America’s Schools Act and the No Child Left Behind Act. Congress could also update and more robustly fund the Full-Service Community Schools Program so that it effects systemic change and its benefits are more widely felt.
  7. Rethink school accountability. Finally, a new approach to education improvement in a reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act (currently called the Every Student Succeeds Act) would center measures of school progress around authentic measures of school quality and equity that inform improvement, rather than around punitive metrics that make it more difficult to recruit and retain teachers willing to work in the highest-need schools.

The federal government could also take a holistic approach to addressing the seven areas above by substantially increasing state- and district-level Title I allocations—which are distributed based on student poverty levels—for the purpose of building systems to recruit, prepare, support, and retain a strong, stable, and diverse teacher workforce.

The Federal Role in Ending Teacher Shortages by Linda Darling-Hammond, Michael DiNapoli Jr., and Tara Kini is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

This research was supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and Skyline Foundation. Core operating support for LPI is provided by the Heising-Simons Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Sandler Foundation, and MacKenzie Scott. We are grateful to them for their generous support. The ideas voiced here are those of the authors and not those of our funders.