District Trendline

What school districts can do to tackle teacher shortages

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Background on teacher shortages

With the start of a new school year, we can expect kids scrambling to finish summer assignments, teachers spending their own hard-earned money on school supplies, and news stories of teacher shortages continuing to sweep the nation.

Coverage of teacher shortages tells of real struggles faced by districts, but it only tells part of the story. The real problems with the supply of teachers is much more nuanced than reported. Here are some things to keep in mind.

  • Only half the people who graduate from teacher prep programs actually take teaching jobs as new teachers in any given year. One reason is that teacher prep programs generally produce about twice as many education graduates as schools are hiring—they're just not producing the types of teachers that most schools need.

Source:  Cowan, J., Goldhaber, D., Hayes, K., & Theobald, R. (2016). Missing elements in the discussion of teacher shortages.

  • The teacher workforce is growing. There were over 3.8 million public school teachers in the 2015-16 school year—an increase of 13 percent (about 400,000 teachers) in four years, while the student population has stayed constant during that same period.225
  • Shortages are much greater in some subjects than others. Elementary education majors are consistently the most common area of initial certification,226 and yet schools don't need to hire nearly as many as are produced. The teachers that schools have the most difficulty finding are those with STEM and special education certifications.227
  • These shortages are nothing new. States have reported many of these same shortage areas for decades.

Of course, this chronic misalignment does not negate the very real struggles that many school districts and states face in hiring any type of teacher, including elementary teachers. Rural and urban school districts tend to have more trouble filling vacancies than suburban districts, and schools with a higher proportion of minority students have more trouble than districts with few minority students.228

The teacher labor market differs from state to state, and among districts. The good news is that this means that your district can take steps, now and in the coming years, to ensure that your classrooms are staffed with strong teachers at the start of the school year.

Actions your district can take:

  • Hire earlier. Generally, the sooner you hire teachers, the more effective those teachers are and the more applicants from which you'll be able to choose. Start hiring earlier in the school year, and keep the process efficient. Some school districts report getting their best results if the process only takes two to three weeks from application to offer.
  • Focus on retaining your strongest teachers. About 16 percent of teachers leave their schools each year and half of those who leave take other teaching jobs. But many teachers who leave the classroom entirely do so to take other leadership positions in the school district. Consider how to keep these teachers in your district's classrooms. Career ladders and supplemental pay for taking on leadership positions (e.g. serving as a mentor teacher, leading a group of teachers) without having to leave teaching are good options.  

Actions on which your district and state can collaborate:

  • Build better data systems. Even districts with well-constructed, transparent data systems that track applicants and teacher vacancies may have little insight into the workings of the district next door. States, however, have the ability to build systems that pull together data from both districts and teacher preparation programs, providing a clear picture of the entire teacher workforce, such as how many people are training to become teachers in each certification area, how many people earn certifications, and the number of open positions and applicants. Having these data allows your district and state to identify where along the teacher pipeline to focus efforts in order to attract more teachers. Currently, however, only eight states address shortages and surpluses by connecting teacher preparation program supply data to district-level hiring statistics.
  • Ease teacher transfers from other states. Districts located near their states' borders often have a harder time recruiting teachers, largely because many teachers who live near the district actually live—and are licensed to teach—in another state. In fact, districts that are near state borders even see lower student achievement due to the reduced pool of teachers from which they can hire, meaning they cannot be as selective about who they hire. Most states make it onerous for teachers to transfer across state lines. You can see how your state's policies stack up here. District leaders have an important opportunity to advocate that state leaders maintain critical requirements—such as considering teacher effectiveness as part of out-of-state licensure—and remove unnecessary barriers—such as specific coursework requirements—that might prevent effective teachers from applying to teach in-state.

Actions on which your district and local teacher prep programs can collaborate:

  • Host student teachers who will fulfill your recruitment needs. Every semester, teacher prep programs search out schools to host their student teachers as they complete their certification requirements. By partnering with these institutions to host student teachers with the credentials or background that you will need in the coming year, you can begin the recruitment and training process before they even graduate. Pair your student teachers with effective teachers so that they have a great—and instructive—experience. Your principals and teachers will have months to vet these aspiring teachers, and you can even make early job offers.
  • Expand your search for new teachers. While your district may already have strong bonds with local teacher preparation programs, consider expanding your search for other great programs a bit further afield. 
  • Provide teacher prep programs with the guidance they need to be good partners. Teacher educators want to serve their local communities, but doing so effectively requires that the district sit in the driver's seat. Communicate clearly and use data to help teacher prep program leaders understand your hiring needs and where your novice teachers struggle. To coordinate efforts with your partners in higher education, consider forming a committee to address weaknesses and opportunities in your talent pipeline.

What not to do:

  • Do not lower standards for new teachers - this may only prolong the problem. Making it easier to become a teacher may temporarily fill some vacancies. However, less effective teachers tend to leave the classroom faster, creating an ongoing (and expensive) cycle of teacher attrition and replacement. While it may take a bit longer, targeting recruitment efforts to stronger teachers will build a better, longer-lasting workforce.

No single step may solve your district's hiring needs, but by taking proactive measures and working with your state policymakers and teacher preparation programs, you can improve recruitment in the short-term and build a stronger pipeline in the long-term.