Teacher shortages: Are we heading in the right direction?

What degree trends are telling us about teacher shortages in high-demand specialties
By: | November 18, 2020
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Erica D. McCray, Ph.D., is Director & Associate Professor in the School of Special Education, School Psychology, and Early Childhood Studies at the University of Florida.

The teacher shortage is real, complex, and concerning—especially in high-demand specialty areas such as special education, math and science, English as a second language, and foreign language. This comes as no surprise, as many reports indicate low enrollment in these educator preparation program (EPP) teaching areas. While it is important to reflect upon the current state of the teacher shortage, it is imperative that EPPs analyze changes in student enrollment to determine future implications for the teacher workforce.

The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE) recently released the issue brief, Degree Trends in High-Demand Teaching Specialties. Authored by Jacqueline E. King, Ph.D., the report examines trends in sub-specialties within the high-demand areas based on data that colleges report to the U.S. Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). While the report offers a few bright spots, it suggests that current PK-12 school shortages will not be remedied simply by hiring newly-prepared teachers.


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According to AACTE’s issue brief, the number of institutions awarding degrees in special education and English as a second language increased between 2009-10 and 2018-19. The issue brief also states that while generalist programs in special education remain popular, programs in sub-specialties including early childhood special education, inclusive elementary education (leading to dual certification), and specific categorical concentrations such as autism have gained graduates. Overall, these trends are promising. Upon closer examination, however, there is still much to do to ensure a diverse pool of well-prepared educators in these areas.

Historically, special education outcomes have been disproportionately low for students from racially, culturally, and linguistically diverse backgrounds. Having more Teachers of Color with the same backgrounds would shift the tide for those students. There are programs around the country graduating effective special education teachers from diverse backgrounds and preparing all teachers to be culturally responsive. However, teacher development extends into the early years of the career, and EPPs and school districts should partner to address preparation and retention, attending to the array of needs of a diverse teacher workforce. These workforce needs should be considered not just at the local level, but also at the state, regional, and national levels. State education agencies and EPPs must also collaborate to ensure alignment between licensure requirements and teacher preparation program requirements.


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The AACTE issue brief also highlights the downward spiral of degrees awarded in both mathematics and science education since 2009-10, despite significant increases outside the field of education over the same period. Additionally, the report reveals that degrees awarded in foreign language education are also on the decline. These decreases have far-reaching consequences, requiring a combined effort to not only recruit and retain teachers, but also encourage those with mathematics, science, and foreign language training and expertise to enter educator preparation programs and become teachers.

The challenge for the profession is not simply having educators with the knowledge to effectively teach, but that those educators also have the skills to successfully establish and maintain a classroom environment that is conducive for learning. As such, individuals entering the classroom from alternative pathways will benefit from opportunities to learn pedagogy—I speak from experience. Industry professionals entering careers in education may initially stem the teacher shortage; however, if they aren’t receiving effectual preparation, they are not likely to remain in the field.

Addressing the broken systems

In order to recruit students and those with industry experience into teaching, as well as retain current educators, state education and federal agencies must align the funding mechanisms that influence the compensation educators can expect when they graduate from programs. If funding mechanisms continue to discourage individuals from entering teaching, requiring individuals to assume more debt than they can pay back in their lifetime, it becomes a systems issue that must be addressed at every level. The mechanism can’t just be allowed to run on autopilot.


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We need to have systems in place that ensure we can retain teachers—if not, it will create a ripple effect. For example, many special education teachers leave the field for varying reasons by their third year. If we don’t have experienced teachers with knowledge, skills, and experience in their specialty, there will be no one to mentor new teachers. Additionally, a teaching pool of only new recruits is a hindrance to creating ladders of advancement and support. Providing opportunities for teachers to develop leadership skills and move into administrative capacities is essential to supporting larger aspects of program development for students with very specific needs.

Sustaining a workforce in high-demand education fields requires a concerted effort across PK-12 and higher education. If we are to eventually solve the teacher shortage, we must pay attention to what the data are telling us. For detailed data and insight, I encourage you to read AACTE’s member-only issue brief, Degree Trends in High-Demand Teaching Specialties.

Dr. Erica D. McCray is Director & Associate Professor in the School of Special Education, School Psychology, and Early Childhood Studies at the University of Florida. She earned her doctorate at the University of South Florida, Tampa. Dr. McCray is currently co-principal investigator of the CEEDAR Center, an Office of Special Education Programs funded technical assistance project as well as a National Science Foundation research project to broaden participation in engineering.