How Can Schools Address the Teacher Shortage?

The current teacher shortage can trace its roots back more than a decade ago.

Summer's almost over, and school will start soon, but some classrooms are still missing teachers.

During the 2021-2022 school year, 48 states and Washington, DC, said they didn't have enough special education teachers; 43 states and DC said they need more math teachers; and 41 states and DC had shortages of science teachers, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

This isn't a strictly pandemic-related problem either: We started seeing an increase in open teaching positions more than a decade ago.

To learn more about the shortage and its causes, LX News Storyteller Jalyn Henderson talked with Desiree Carver-Thomas, a Researcher and Policy Analyst at the Learning Policy Institute, which conducts "research to improve education policy and practice."

The interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Jalyn Henderson: We've seen a lot of headlines covering the teacher shortage, but this is something schools and districts across the country have been dealing with for years. What started this?

Desiree Carver-Thomas: This has actually been an ongoing issue and it's something that we started writing about and researching with a report that we put out back in 2016. What we saw was that after the Great Recession, we started to see an issue with teacher shortages. So during the Great Recession, lots of teachers were laid off. That created a sort of excess of teachers, if you will. And, you know, as districts and schools started to recover or started to have increasing budgets, they were able to fill those positions that might have been cut during the recession. But they were finding that there wasn't this pool of teachers who were ready to come back into the classroom.

Henderson: So, a fewer amount of people becoming a teachers can definitely impact a shortage. What are other potential causes?

Carver-Thomas: Nine out of ten positions that need to be filled are to replace someone who has left. And most of the teachers who leave are not leaving for retirement. They're actually leaving mid-career. Being able to keep some of those individuals in the teaching profession would really help to mitigate shortages because those are positions that wouldn't need to be filled year after year after year. What we also see is that turnover is strongly associated with compensation. Teachers who teach in schools or districts where compensation rates are higher are more likely to stay in teaching. In addition, teachers who work in schools where there's strong administrative support are more likely to stay. Our analysis shows that when teachers report that their administration is not at all encouraging or supportive, they're more than twice as likely to leave the profession.

Henderson: A lack of teachers affects every aspect of the school, but are there any subjects or types of students that will be affected the most?

Carver-Thomas: Teacher shortages have sort of historically been especially chronic for special education, math and science, foreign languages, bilingual education. And that continues to be the case. The research is clear that teacher shortages disproportionately impact students of color, students from low income families... There's this sort of revolving door of teachers who come into those schools underprepared oftentimes. And then because they're underprepared, they're more likely to leave.

Henderson: What do you think needs to happen to fix or reduce the shortage?

Carver-Thomas: Teachers are the number one factors associated with student achievement. So we know that teachers are just crucially important to how our students achieve. This shortage is not something that just popped up in the past year or two. It's something that's been ongoing and that will need sustained investment and focus in order to turn around. It's something that band-aid solutions are not going to solve and, in fact, may further exacerbate the issue that we have before us. So I think the most important takeaway is that we need to invest in the teacher workforce...particularly comprehensive preparation being a critical piece of that.