TQB: Teacher Quality Bulletin

The scarce, incomplete, and elusive teacher workforce data

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There is lots of talk these days about teacher shortages, not altogether unfounded given the uncertainty and dramatic changes to the work of teachers brought about by the pandemic. But what really happened to the education labor market during the pandemic, and what really happened to the teacher workforce? As we discussed previously and as Joshua Bleiberg and Matthew Kraft recently formalized in a working paper, fears of multitudes of teachers leaving the profession have not yet materialized, though there is still much we don't know. One thing we do know for certain: K-12 educator workforce data is lagging, lacking, and limited.

In their paper, Bleiberg and Kraft took advantage of federal and state data sets to piece together at least a partial picture of the education workforce. Using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) they found that employment in the local public education labor market dropped dramatically between March and May 2020 (at the onset of the pandemic), so much so that it undid all the education labor recovery since the Great Recession. However, this data includes everyone who works in public education: teachers, school administrators, district personnel, cafeteria employees, bus drivers, etc. As public school teachers are only 30% of the sector's workforce, it's hard to know if the decrease represents teachers or bus drivers or custodians.

The decline in the education workforce at the beginning of the pandemic was not driven entirely by people leaving. The BLS labor turnover survey (JOLTS) showed that education sector hiring was much slower than typical in the spring of 2020 and is still slow compared to pre-pandemic years.

Using the Census Bureau's and BLS' Current Population Survey, Bleiberg and Kraft analyzed some of the trends among some specific occupations, but this data only provides a national picture and is not meant to supply valid estimates by individual occupations and localities. Between the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 school years, the largest job losses were those of school support staff in general, with "meaningful" but smaller declines in teachers' jobs as well (which the researchers could not accurately quantify due to the limitations of the data). Job losses among support staff merit close attention, as teacher workforce stability is buoyed by adequate instructional support, as evidenced by recent research and surveys.

The authors also looked at data available from 14 state education agencies (SEAs), which confirms that support staff employment was among the hardest hit by the pandemic. SEA data is the only relatively timely data that offers a look into what teacher employment looks like at a state level, but too few states publish enough or a coherent set of dataand what exists varies too much between states—to give a complete picture of the teacher workforce. The available data suggests that there was no increase in teacher turnover after the start of the pandemic (the end of the 2019-2020 school year); on the contrary, teacher turnover declined slightly across 14 states. At the time of publication, the authors only had 2020-2021 data for two states: South Carolina and Washington state. The former showed only a small increase in turnover and the latter showed virtually no change.

State data too recent to have made it into the Bleiberg and Kraft paper indicates that between the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 school years, turnover has increased a few percentage points each in Arkansas, Colorado, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Texas. While state data has the potential to provide a more comprehensive picture of public education employment in specific localities, the scarcity and lagging nature of current state reports is an impediment to understanding the education workforce.

Drawing from the available data sources, Bleiberg and Kraft acknowledge the limitations of the existing data and conclude:

  • There has been a historic decline in the education sector workforce.
  • It is most likely not driven by teacher turnover.
  • The decline is most likely explained by a hiring slowdown and increased turnover of instructional support staff.

The biggest conclusion of this paper (worthy of a subtitle) is that the nation lacks nationally representative, detailed, and timely data on the education workforce, in particular on teacher supply and demand, and on the relationship between the teacher workforce and the size and composition of the student body.

Other recent research has sought to at least partially fill this void. Using state data, Andrew Bacher-Hicks, Olivia Chi, and Alexis Orellana from Boston University analyzed teacher turnover in Massachusetts from the early part of the pandemic to the fall of 2021, finding a couple percentage point increase in turnover compared to fall 2020 (consistent with the findings from a few other states). The research also heralded news of lower turnover rates for teachers of color. The authors conclude that the increased numbers of teachers of color recently hired in Massachusetts, coupled with the lower turnover rates of teachers of color have led to small increases in the racial diversity of teachers in Massachusetts.

The data in the Massachusetts-specific paper is not readily available in all states. Indeed, Bleiberg and Kraft describe an "acute need for better [K-12 education] data systems." 

Simply put, there are many questions about the educator workforce that we cannot answer, due to data limitations. For example, with increasing concerns about an economic recession, evidence of decreasing student enrollment and corresponding decreased budgets, districts may face teacher layoff decisions. States need data to determine if these layoff decisions run counter to current workforce goals. For instance, if new hires in other states are increasingly teachers of color as was the case in Massachusetts, the large proportion of districts that use seniority as the main layoff criterion would undo the recent gains in diversifying the educator workforce. This could result in adverse effects on students whose learning has suffered the most during the pandemic.

Detailed and timely educator workforce data systems are critical for districts and states to make informed decisions and implement evidence-based policies and practices toward providing an effective teacher for every student.