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Virginia Journal of Education

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The teacher shortage is a threat to our schools.


This article is drawn from the Economic Policy Institute’s report, “The Teacher Shortage is Real, Large and Growing, and Worse Than We Thought,” which is the first report in a series entitled, “The Perfect Storm in the Teacher Labor Market.” The series, which will look at the magnitude of the teacher shortage and the factors causing it, will feature reports on teaching recruitment and retention challenges faced by high-poverty schools, the impact of school environments on teachers, and the lack of training, early career support, and professional development provided to many teachers.

In recent years, education researchers and journalists who cover education have called attention to the growing teacher shortage in the nation’s K–12 schools. They cite a variety of indicators of the shortage, including state-by-state subject area vacancies, personal testimonials and data from state and school district officials, and declining enrollment in teacher preparation programs.

As recently as the 2011–2012 school year, the estimated supply of teachers available to be hired exceeded the demand for them—i.e., there was a surplus of teachers in that year’s labor market. But estimated projected demand soon exceeded the estimated supply and the projected gap grew sharply in just a handful of years—from around 20,000 in 2012–2013, to 64,000 teachers in the 2015–16 school year, to over 110,000 in 2017–2018. In other words, the shortage of teachers was projected to more than quadruple in just five years and the gap to remain at those 2017–2018 levels thereafter.

The teacher shortage has serious consequences. A lack of sufficient, qualified teachers threatens students’ ability to learn. Instability in a school’s teacher workforce (i.e., high turnover and/or high attrition) negatively affects student achievement and diminishes teacher effectiveness and quality. And high teacher turnover consumes economic resources (i.e., through costs of recruiting and training new teachers) that could be better deployed elsewhere. The teacher shortage also makes it more difficult to build a solid reputation for teaching and to professionalize it, further perpetuating the shortage. In addition, the fact that the shortage is distributed so unevenly among students of different socioeconomic backgrounds challenges the U.S. education system’s goal of providing a sound education equitably to all children.

Conclusion: We must tackle the working conditions and other factors that contribute to the growing teacher shortage, especially in high-poverty schools.

There is no sign that the large shortage of credentialed teachers—overall, and especially in high-poverty schools—will go away. In light of the harms this shortage creates, as well as its size and trends, it is critical to understand the nature of the problem and the complexity of the teacher labor market. Only when we understand the factors that contribute to the growing shortage of high-quality teachers can we design policy interventions—and better guide institutional decisions—to find the “missing” teachers.

As a first step to exploring the teacher shortage, it is important to acknowledge that the teacher shortage is the result of multiple and interdependent drivers, all working simultaneously to cause the imbalance between the number of new teachers needed (demand) and the number of individuals available to be hired (supply). But both supply-side and demand-side drivers of the labor market for teachers are products of existing working conditions, existing policies, and other factors. If these change, this can in turn drive changes in the demand and supply of teachers and affect the size (or existence) of the teacher shortage.

We put forth this series of reports to analyze the factors that contribute to shortages of highly qualified teachers, and to the larger shortage of these teachers in high-poverty schools. Though no one condition or factor alone creates or eliminates shortages, each of them plays a role in this established problem, deserves separate attention, and has its own policy implications. Indeed, it is because we rarely provide this attention that we have failed to understand and fix the problems. The reports that we are publishing in this series will focus on these multiple intersecting factors. The second paper shows how a teacher shortage manifests in schools in the form of real struggles schools are having in properly staffing themselves. The three reports that follow dig into some of the reasons why teaching is becoming an unattractive profession. Specifically, four forthcoming reports will show the following:

• Schools struggle to find and retain highly qualified individuals to teach, and this struggle is tougher in high-poverty schools. A dwindling pool of applicants and excessive teacher attrition make staffing schools difficult. With the number of students completing teacher preparation programs falling dramatically, and with significant rates of attrition and turnover in the profession, it should be no surprise that schools report difficulties in hiring and, in some cases, do not hire anyone to fill vacancies. The difficulties are greater in high-poverty schools. The share of schools that are hiring, the difficulty in filling vacancies, and the share of unfilled vacancies all increased in the past few years.

• Low teacher pay is reducing the attractiveness of teaching jobs and is an even bigger problem in high-poverty schools. Teachers have long been underpaid compared with similarly educated workers in other professions, with a pay gap that has grown substantially in the past two decades. In high-poverty schools, teachers face a double disadvantage, as they are further underpaid relative to their peers in low-poverty schools.

• The tough school environment is demoralizing to teachers, especially so in high-poverty schools. Teachers report that student absenteeism, class-cutting, student apathy, lack of parental involvement, poor student health, poverty, and other factors are a problem. Larger shares of teachers also report high levels of stress and fears for their safety. The school climate is tougher in high-poverty schools. Relative to their peers in low-poverty schools, teachers in high-poverty schools are less likely to say they intend to continue to teach and more likely to say they think about transferring to another school.

• Teachers—especially in high-poverty schools—aren’t getting the training, early career support, and professional development opportunities they need to succeed and this too is keeping them, or driving them, out of the profession. The lack of supports that are critical to succeeding in the classroom and the unsatisfactory continued training makes teaching less attractive and impedes its professionalization. Teachers in high-poverty schools devote a slightly larger share of their hours to delivering instruction, and fewer of them have scheduled time for professional development.

Together, these factors, their trends, and the lack of proper comprehensive policy attention countering them have created a perfect storm in the teacher labor market, as evident in the spiking shortage of highly qualified teachers, especially in high-poverty schools. The sixth and final report in the series calls for immediate policy steps to address this national crisis.

Excerpts from “The Teacher Shortage is Real, Large and Growing, and Worse Than We Thought” are used with the permission of the Economic Policy Institute. To read the entire report, visit EPI’s website through this shortened link:


1,000  Unfilled teaching positions in Virginia (latest estimate by the Virginia Department of Education)

Virginia’s Current Top 10 Critical Shortage Teaching Endorsement Areas
1. Special Education
2. Elementary Education PreK-6
3. Middle Education Grades 6-8
4. Career and Technical Education
5. Mathematics Grades 6-12 (including Algebra 1)
6. School Counselor PreK-12
7. English (Secondary)
8. Science (Secondary)
9. Foreign Language PreK-12
10. Health and Physical Education PreK-12

Source: Virginia Department of Education



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