Overview of Teacher Shortages: At a Glance

The headlines don’t lie. School districts across the country are struggling to attract and keep good teachers, a situation that seems to be particularly acute in states such as California and Oklahoma. At the same time, public school enrollments are more diverse while the expectations states have set for the next generation of learners are higher. 

As local school leaders are painfully aware, the new standards will not be met if they cannot ensure all their students have the benefit of well-prepared teachers. This is not a good time for schools to be facing a teacher shortage and school leaders are clearly feeling the urgency. 

The Center for Public Education delved into this issue to gain some clarity and, hopefully, provide useful information to education officials and policymakers who are on the frontlines of staffing inequities. 

National Data Obscures Problem, But Teacher Shortages Do Exist

While we know that many districts and even whole states have teaching vacancies they can’t fill, many in the research community have concluded that, nationally, there is no shortage. 

Substantially fewer college students are enrolling in teacher preparation programs, but those who do appear to be completing at higher rates. More veteran teachers are leaving, but more new teachers are staying. The net effect seems to be that the supply of teachers nationwide is not significantly different than it was five years ago.

However, the overall numbers mask imbalances that are creating shortages on various fronts:

By state: the nation is awarding more teacher licenses, but 20 states have seen decreases. Oklahoma, Washington, Minnesota, Virginia and New York have all seen certificates drop by one third to almost one half in the last four years. Other states, such as South Dakota, struggle to find enough teachers to keep up with increases in student enrollments.

By subject area: schools report vacancies in STEM fields more than others. They also have more difficulty hiring special education and bilingual teachers.

By school level: there is actually a surfeit of new elementary teachers, but schools report having trouble filling positions in their middle and high schools

By student minority/poverty enrollments: by some accounts, it is easier for traditionally hard-to-staff schools to fill positions than it used to be. However, high-poverty and high-minority schools still have more trouble than others.

By staff race/ethnicity: the student population is increasingly diverse. In many states, public schools have a majority-minority student body. Yet four out of five teachers are white (AACTE, 2013).

Big Picture, Local Solution

Teacher shortages are ultimately local. Some states have them while others don’t, which is why we also examined the issue at the state level where different policies, teacher prep programs and demographic shifts, among other factors, create the unique challenges that four different states face in recruiting and retaining teachers.

Even in those lucky states with plenty of teachers, individual districts can have trouble filling positions. State and federal policy can help support a better supply and distribution. But the exact staffing needs will vary as much as communities do from each other. How a district addresses a shortage depends on understanding why it exists, in what areas, and which groups of students are most affected by it. 

Questions for School Board Members

School boards should keep the following questions in mind as they consider the staffing needs in their district:

Do we have enough teachers? How many vacancies do we have? What is the applicant-to-vacancy ratio? Are there particular subjects or specialized areas, such as math or bilingual education that are harder to staff than others? Are there schools in our district that are harder to staff than others? 

Are our teachers qualified? Do we have evidence of the quality of the programs that produce our teacher candidates? Are all teachers licensed in the area of their assignment? Do we have teachers with emergency credentials? How many? Where do they teach and to which groups of students? 

Are we able to recruit qualified teachers? How do our salaries compare to neighboring/comparable districts? Can we provide incentives in shortage areas, for example, differential pay, signing bonuses, student loan forgiveness? Do we provide mentoring for new teachers? How effective are our induction programs?

How are we doing at retaining qualified teachers? What is our turnover rate? How does it compare to other districts? Do some schools in our district have higher turnover than others? Do teachers feel well supported in their school? Do we provide time and resources for teacher collaboration and learning? Do we provide opportunities for leadership development for principals?

Can we grow our own? Do a significant share of our teachers come from certain universities? Do we have a partnership with these universities? Can we collaborate on recruiting and training qualified candidates in order to maintain a steady supply of good teachers in our schools?

Patte Barth is Director, Naomi Dillon is Managing Editor, Jim Hull is former Senior Policy Analyst and Breanna Higgins is the spring 2016 Intern for the Center for Public Education.  

Published: April 2016 

Copyright 2016 The Center for Public Education