Teacher shortages are a worrisome emerging trend, as you can read about in this piece by Michael DiNapoli of the Learning Policy Institute that lays out the problem quite well.
This post is part of LPI's Learning in the Time of COVID-19 blog series, which explores evidence-based and equity-focused strategies and investments to address the current crisis and build long-term systems capacity.
For decades, U.S. schools have struggled to provide all students with access to well-prepared and experienced teachers who reflect the rich ethnic and racial diversity of the country. Reports have repeatedly documented that students of color and other historically underserved students are disproportionately taught by new, underprepared, and inexperienced teachers—an inequity that is substantially responsible for persistent achievement gaps between students of color and their white peers.
Before the pandemic, districts across the country were grappling with ongoing teacher shortages. In the 2017–18 school year alone, these widespread shortages resulted in more than 100,000 teaching positions left vacant or staffed by individuals who were unqualified for their jobs. Likewise, nearly every state reported shortages of teachers in high-need subjects like math, science, and special education, driven by both teacher turnover and significant declines in those choosing to enter the profession. From 2009 to 2017, 340,000 fewer students enrolled in educator preparation programs, with the drop driven largely by financial concerns, including the high cost of comprehensive preparation, the burden of student loan debt, and the lack of competitive compensation. More than two-thirds of educators are weighed down with an average of $20,000 to $50,000 in student loan debt. Preparation costs and student loan debt are a particularly significant burden for students who are Black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) and contribute to difficulties in attracting and retaining a diverse teaching force.
COVID-19 has only served to worsen these pre-pandemic conditions. According to U.S. Department of Education data for the 2020–21 school year, to date 43 states are reporting shortages in math teachers, 42 in science teachers, and 44 in special education teachers. In addition to expected reductions in those entering the profession, we’re seeing concerning signs of increased turnover as stressful working conditions and health concerns are prompting some to seek early retirement and others to leave the profession. At the same time, school communities are grappling with layoffs that are destabilizing their educator workforce, including teachers and support personnel. And local and state policymakers are bracing themselves for future budget cuts—and the layoffs that go along with them.
Warning Signs of a Shrinking Pipeline of New Teachers
Unlike the Great Recession, when a weak job market drove up college enrollment, the pandemic is leading to a decline in enrollment in higher education. Data on teacher preparation program enrollment is not yet available, but early signs are worrisome. Undergraduate enrollment is down by nearly 4% (a concerning statistic, given that 80% of educators begin teaching with a bachelor’s degree). Enrollment declines are steepest among Native American and Black students. Enrollment at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), which are a significant source of new educators, is down 5.5%. Alarmingly, 22% fewer students from the high school class of 2020 enrolled directly in college after graduation, with the greatest declines seen at schools serving students from low-income families, students of color, and students in urban areas.
Enrollment in community colleges, which are more racially and economically diverse than their four-year counterparts, has also dropped—by more than 10%—with public two-year HBCUs experiencing a more than 20% enrollment decline. These declines threaten enrollment in traditional teacher preparation programs, as well as in 2+2 educator preparation programs, which help diverse candidates become teachers through partnerships between 2-year institutions of higher education and their 4-year counterparts.
An August 2020 Census Bureau survey provides insight into the causes for the drop in higher education enrollment. Alongside the shift to distance learning and their fears of getting COVID-19, survey respondents cited their inability to pay as a factor in their decision to forgo college. Pandemic-related layoffs have hurt low-income and BIPOC communities the hardest, including requiring recent high school graduates and current college students to forgo their education in order to help support their families.
A forthcoming LPI analysis will provide an up-close look at how the pandemic is impacting the teaching workforce in California. Soon, LPI will release California Teachers and COVID-19: How the Pandemic is Impacting the Teacher Workforce. The report details how teacher burnout, retirements, and resignations have exacerbated critical shortages in California districts and could lead to even worse shortages to come. The report describes how state investments can ensure a strong and stable teacher workforce by funding high-retention pathways into the profession and providing educator development and supports.
Unprecedented Teaching Conditions Spurring Turnover
Since the first COVID-19 restrictions were put in place last March, teachers have been on the front lines of an unprecedented effort to adapt teaching and learning to our new and often-shifting reality. The challenges they report include longer hours, inadequate support, and strain on their mental and physical health. For example, 75% of National Board Certified teachers surveyed last August and September reported working more hours, with 20% reporting working more than 15 extra hours a week. About one in five of these respondents—who are expert, experienced teachers—stated that professional learning supports from their schools and districts were “not at all adequate.” A survey of Colorado superintendents revealed widespread fears of teacher burnout resulting from the additional burdens associated with enforcing safety protocols, addressing the impact of lost instructional time, teaching in hybrid situations (online and in person), and abruptly switching to fully remote learning when classes must quarantine.
These and other factors are already taking a toll. Surveys from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), and the National Education Association (NEA) all show that many educators are planning to retire early, take a leave of absence, or exit the profession entirely. In an August 2020 poll, 45% of principals said pandemic working conditions were “accelerating their plans to leave the profession.” In the NEA poll (released in August 2020), 28% of all teachers and 43% of Black teachers said they’re more likely to retire early or leave the profession. This emerging trend is worrying, given the outsized role that turnover plays in teacher shortages. Prior to the pandemic, research showed that about 90% of the annual nationwide demand for teachers is created by teachers leaving the profession.
There’s also evidence of a shortage of substitute teachers to tap when classroom teachers fall ill, are quarantined, or are otherwise unable to work. For example, a fall EdWeek survey found that about one-third of schools and districts are unable to hire a substitute for roughly 50% of their absent teachers. Eighty percent of respondents reported leaving classes uncovered. Schools in California, Idaho, Michigan, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Wisconsin, West Virginia, and other states have had to close temporarily when teachers quarantined and substitute coverage came up short. In some instances, the lack of qualified substitute teachers has resulted in states and districts lowering the bar for these positions, including allowing individuals with just a high school diploma to serve as substitute teachers. Jhone Ebert, Nevada’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, explained, in a January New York Times article, “We have to go to … extremes to get adults temporarily in the room to support our children.”
News of Layoffs and Fears of More
Employment in public schools is at its lowest level since the year 2000, despite there being about 3.5 million more students in schools today. The latest job numbers indicate an over 8% decrease in public school employment, meaning students have access to about 676,000 fewer educators and school support personnel than they did at this time last year. Although many of these cuts are non-teaching positions, teacher layoffs have occurred or are anticipated, based on budget conditions, in Hawaii, Missouri, and New York, among others.
And this could get worse. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) has projected that state budgets will likely see a reduction of 11% this fiscal year and 10% in the next fiscal year. An earlier estimate by LPI showed that a 10% reduction in state funding would result in a 5% reduction in the teacher workforce—or more than 173,000 teachers losing their jobs. During the Great Recession, cuts in teaching positions had the greatest impact on BIPOC students and students from low-income families. The cuts also had long-term implications for the profession, as the widespread teacher layoffs are widely believed to have been one of the causes for the significant drop in enrollment in teacher preparation programs.