The Truth About Teacher Shortages

Growing teacher shortages across states continue to worsen, just as student enrollment is projected to increase by 3 million over the next 10 years, according to the Learning Policy Institute. Elaine Wynn, president of the Nevada State Board of Education, described the situation in her state as a human resource crisis. “We’re all going to sink,” Wynn told the Las Vegas Sun. “This is horrific.”

Education experts say inadequate supplies of qualified teachers cause problems ranging from increased class sizes, use of temporary substitute teachers, unprepared instructors from other fields, and even canceled classes.

Oklahoma, for example, cut more than 850 public school classes due to shortages during the 2015-2016 school year. Shortages also forced the state to distribute more than 840 emergency teaching certifications for instructors not certified in the subjects they teach. That was more than the state had issued in the last four years combined.

“We are experiencing what appears to be the first major shortage since the 1990s,” said CEO of the Learning Policy Institute Linda Darling-Hammond.

The shortage comes as states are reinstituting programs and classes cut during the Great Recession. But according to LPI, reaching pre-recession teacher employment levels would require 145,000 new hires across the country. 

But increased demand may not be the only factor in the shortage. According to data from the Education Commission of the States, enrollment in teacher training programs fell nearly 35 percent from 719,081 to 465,536 from 2009-2014. If current trends persist, by 2018 the teacher shortfall could reach 112,000 nationwide.

But some experts, however, question whether the shortage is as severe as others claim. To help sort through the debate, here are a few research studies to consider.

  • Findings from studies by the American Institutes for Research show preparation programs graduate between 175,000 and 300,000 new teachers each year, yet school districts only hire between 60,000 and 140,000 new teachers. School districts have been far more likely to hire individuals with previous teaching experience.
  • Meanwhile, data from the National Center for Education Statistics suggest that only 30 percent of all new hires were recent graduates of teacher preparation programs.
  • President of the National Council on Teacher Quality Kate Walsh minimizes the severity of teacher shortages overall, but suggested to the Washington Post that the country has a long-standing problem with teacher supply in certain subjects and school districts. For nearly 30 years, the number of math and science teachers in disadvantaged school districts have failed to meet demand.
  • Research from The Consortium for Policy Research in Education suggests that teacher shortages are more likely a result of teachers leaving the profession before retirement age rather than from an insufficient number of new teachers graduating from teacher training programs. The data show there are enough qualified teachers, but not enough willing teachers to go to disadvantaged districts.

Clark Country, Nevada, tackled shortages in a hard to fill district in a unique way. Facing 1,000 vacancies at the start of the 2015-2016 school year, district officials began targeting potential applicants from areas with notoriously high costs of living throughout the state. The technique worked and Clark County filled nearly 700 of its vacant positions by attracting new hires lured by the idea of lower cost of living.

The debate continues over whether there is a severe shortage of teachers across the states, but most experts agree there is a shortage of teachers in the areas of math and science, particularly in disadvantaged districts. Teacher training programs are producing qualified teachers, but many new teachers are not choosing to teach in high-demand districts. Recruitment initiatives likely will not solve the problem, alone; states should also consider ways to improve retention rates among high-quality teachers to help fill the gap.