Turning the tide on teacher shortages

Administrators must focus on preparation and retention, particularly in high-needs districts
By: | Issue: March, 2019
March 26, 2019
Daniel Espinoza is a research and policy assistant at the Learning Policy Institute.

Most states have struggled for several years to address teacher shortages, often filling the vacuum with underprepared educators who aren’t able to give children the high-quality learning they need. These teachers also leave at two to three times the rate of well-prepared staffers. Despite this, evidence-based policies can guide states and districts in lessening the impact of shortages, says Daniel Espinoza, a research and policy assistant at the Learning Policy Institute and lead author of “Taking the Long View: State Efforts to Solve Teacher Shortages by Strengthening the Profession”.

Espinoza based his strategies on research into improved teacher preparation, recruitment and retention. His models can help states build sustainable systems to attract, develop and retain a strong teacher workforce.

What causes teacher shortages?

The biggest factor we’ve identified in our research is attrition. About 90 percent of annual teacher demand is driven by teachers leaving the profession. Roughly 6 in 10 teachers who leave the classroom in any given year leave before retirement.

Our data show that they’re leaving for reasons of dissatisfaction. They’re dissatisfied with administration, dissatisfied with testing and accountability pressures, and dissatisfied with working conditions or with compensation.

Teacher shortages tend to impact students of color and students from low-income backgrounds most acutely. Our research shows that teachers from schools with the greatest proportion of students of color leave teaching at a rate that’s about 50 percent higher than at schools with the fewest students of color. And teachers in Title I schools leave their schools—or the profession—at rates that are 70 percent higher than at other schools.

You write that local teacher shortages have become a hot topic since 2015. Why that year in particular?

During the recession, a lot of state education budgets were slashed and teaching positions were cut. Around the summer of 2015 in particular, states were starting to come out of the recession and education was starting to feel that. So states began hiring back teachers and looking to reduce pupil-teacher ratios, and that, of course, drove a demand in teaching positions. The shortage expanded around that time in part because there was a drop in the number of individuals receiving teacher certifications. So when you have decreasing supply and increasing demand, the shortages can become more acute.

Are there particular subject areas that are more affected by shortages?

Shortages vary by location and, yes, by subject area. The data show that math and science, bilingual education, and special education tend to be particularly acute in terms of shortages.

Some states may not report teacher shortages, but when you drill down into the data, you see that districts with underserved student populations actually have severe shortages.

Right. One of the big takeaways around teacher shortages is that they can be at a local level. Even if shortages are a state issue, the parameters and the actual context—the subject area, for example—could be different at the local level. So, like you said, drilling down to the local context and understanding what’s happening from an administrative perspective at the district or school level is quite important.

In “Taking the Long View,” you reference a number of evidence-based policies that can address teacher shortages. What are some examples?

They include service scholarship and loan forgiveness programs, as well as higher-retention pathways into teaching, such as residency programs in which individuals work with a master teacher over the course of a full school year. There are also “grow your own” programs, some of which focus on introducing teaching to high school students. These programs also look to partner with paraprofessionals who are already working in schools and to support them on their path to earning a teacher certification.

You also call for better mentoring of teachers.

Yes. The data show high quality mentoring and induction for new teachers can make a difference in reducing teacher turnover. If a new teacher receives supports—mentoring, common planning time with other teachers in the same subject area, extra resources, and a strong teacher network—first-year turnover can be cut by more than half.

One study showed that this comprehensive set of supports led to a reduction in first-year turnover from 41 percent to 18 percent. The unfortunate news is that the percentage of beginning teachers who receive this comprehensive set of supports is quite low.

On average, U.S. teachers are paid about 30 percent less when compared with other college graduates.

The report also mentions the importance of administrative support. What does that entail?

Teachers often identify the quality of administrative support as more important than salary in their decision to stay in a school or in the profession. Teachers who don’t get that support are twice as likely to leave as those who have strong administrative support.

Administrative support is a broad category, but it includes things such as emotional and instructional support. School leaders should support their teachers with instructional resources, teaching materials and meaningful professional learning opportunities—all of which have been associated with lower attrition rates.

On the leadership-style side of things, research shows that principals who don’t view themselves as traditional, omnipotent, top-down administrators often have lower attrition rates. They take a collaborative approach to decision-making and offer teachers a significant voice in making school decisions.

In general, it speaks to principals who are able to create a broader sense of ownership, and that is associated with retention.

You mentioned service scholarship and loan forgiveness programs.

Yes. Having financial supports that can meaningfully offset the cost of high-quality teacher preparation—tied to a service commitment—can really help get teachers into the areas where they’re needed most, such as a Title I school, a particular geographic area (urban, rural or suburban) or even a subject area. Service scholarship programs can be flexible in that way and targeted to a state’s or a district’s needs.

Compensation—or a lack thereof—would seem to be a big factor in teacher attrition.

One of the critical pieces to understand is that there’s been a growing wage gap for teachers when compared with other professionals. Research shows that the average weekly wages of public school teachers, adjusted for inflation, have decreased from 1996 to 2017. So over the past 20 years, teachers’ weekly wages have gone down. Now that’s been slightly offset by increases in benefits compensation. But overall, the public school teachers’ total compensation in the form of wages and benefits has continued at a steady decline since the early 1990s. On average, U.S. teachers are paid about 30 percent less when compared with other college graduates.

One of the policies you mentioned is making it easier to bring back retired teachers. What’s the problem there?

Many states have laws on the books that disincentivize retired teachers to go back, even as substitutes. That disincentive is in the form of not being able to have a wage while drawing from a pension. Legislators in states such as Colorado, for example, have recently passed laws—either statewide or in districts where shortages are particularly acute—that remove that disincentive and facilitate the process for retired or experienced teachers to come back to the classroom where they’re needed most.

Do you see a point where we reverse the trend of teacher shortages?

Addressing teacher shortages will take comprehensive approaches that fully account for particular issues at the state and local levels. The research shows that, with such comprehensive approaches, we have a better shot at making sure that every student across the country is educated and taught by well-prepared teachers.

—Tim Goral is senior editor.