May 13, 2022

Beyond the Soundbite: Investigating Teacher Shortages Before and During the Pandemic

Carol Keirstead
R7CC supporting Mississippi Equitable Access to Effective Educators ; National Comprehensive Center Capacity Building Team
people talking

Alarming headlines like “Teachers are resigning across the US,” “Teachers are quitting,” “Staff resignations are deepening the crisis,” have been prevalent in stories about the effect of COVID-19 on public schooling. These headlines do not tell the full story. In a presentation to the CCNetwork, Stacey Pelika, Director of Research for the National Education Association, and Chad Aldeman with Edunomics Lab, a National Center Partner, presented a picture of teacher shortages that is much more nuanced and less dramatic than the headlines. 

They shared a picture that makes a compelling case for addressing short-term needs while also rethinking and rebuilding systems that will attract, prepare, support, and retain teachers for schools of the future. 

Stacey and Chad presented data from a variety of sources on the educator workforce, revealing important trends and nuanced detail about teacher shortages in the United States. Here are some key points from their presentation.

Better systems and tools are needed to understand trends and gaps in the educator workforce
As researchers and data analysts, Stacey and Chad pull from myriad data sources to understand teacher shortages. Stacey calls it “stitching together a picture from different data sources.” These data sources include federal employment and education data, non-governmental sources, and state and local sources. She outlined the strengths and limitations of each of these data sources. Both experts pointed to the wide variation in the quality and comprehensiveness of state and local data systems, which are those most needed for leaders to understand and respond to workforce needs—both short and long term.

Shortages are not a new thing    
Federal employment data show that the gap between job openings in education and hires widened with the pandemic but did not start with the pandemic. Quit rates are lower in public education compared to the total economy, while quit rates have been increasing in all sectors over the past two decades.

Shortages vary by position
A RAND study showed shortages were highest for substitute teachers (77%), followed by bus drivers (57%), special education teachers (41%), math teachers (32%), bilingual/EL teachers (24%), and elementary teachers (15%). Teacher turnover rates are lower overall than the rate of turnover for principals and superintendents.

How people feel does not always predict what they will do
Predictions of high teacher turnover due to the pandemic did not come to pass. Teacher turnover actually went down in 2020 and some states report slight increases in 2021, but all within parameters of past patterns. Chad cautioned about the interpretation of data, mentioning that teacher satisfaction surveys are shown to overpredict rates of leaving.

Getting through COVID-19 meant extra work for staff
The most reported effect of increased vacancies due to illness or caring for ill family members during the pandemic was that schools had to use teaching and non-teaching staff for roles outside of their usual duties. Schools were unable to fill vacancies due to illness given the shortage, as mentioned above, of substitute teachers and other staff.

Strategies that have helped to address staff shortages exacerbated by the pandemic

  • Use compensation (ARP funds) to tackle specific problems – target funds to fill shortage areas, use funds for signing and retention bonuses, and provide stipends to compensate for extra work.
  • Get creative in expanding the labor pool – leverage and compensate parents and students; pay existing staff to work a longer year and/or day; use remote teaching as a way to provide access to more instruction. 
  • Provide more mental health and other support systems for students. 

Understanding the teacher workforce is a paramount concern for the CCNetwork and the states and districts we serve. New reports emerge on a regular basis that shed light on the factors that contribute to making the teaching profession a desirable one and one that will keep the best talent where they are needed the most.  To do this, we must apply what has been learned from the innovative and urgent actions taken during the pandemic to imagine and create systems that lead to a stronger and more stable teacher workforce. 

Click this link to watch the presentation.