Shortage of K-12 Teachers at an All-Time High

The headline of a recent Washington Post article by Hannah Natanson read “‘Never seen it this bad’: America faces catastrophic teacher shortage.” Ms. Natanson sets the stage by reporting that rural Texas school districts are switching to four-day work weeks this fall due to a lack of staff (hoping to attract new teachers with the four-day option), Florida is asking veterans with no teaching background to teach, and Arizona is allowing college students to instruct children.

Ms. Natanson reports that it is impossible to tell how bad the shortage is. There is no national database that tracks the teacher shortage. With summer about to end, the shortage in some states is in the thousands.

  • Nevada estimates that 3,000 teaching jobs were unfilled as of early August.
  • Illinois reported 2,040 teaching jobs were open in a January report.
  • Houston, TX reported that its five largest school districts were all reporting between 200 and 1,000 open teaching positions.

Asking the question “why are America’s public schools so short-staffed?”, Ms. Natanson points to several answers.

  • Pandemic-induced teacher exhaustion,
  • Low pay,
  • Little respect for the profession from politicians,
  • Little respect for the profession from parents,
  • Little respect for the profession from school board members,
  • Policies and laws restricting what teachers can say about U.S. history, race, racism, gender and sexual orientation, as well as LGBTQ issues.

Stopgap solutions cited by Ms. Natanson range from offering teachers better pay to increasing the pool of people who quality as educators to bumping up class sizes. Sadly, these are stopgap measures and not permanent solutions.

I have long been a proponent of finding ways to improve our public K-12 system. There is no doubt in my mind that teachers need to be paid more. At the same time, let’s reduce the administrative bureaucracy that interferes with their ability to teach and add those funds to the teacher salary pool. I spoke with a friend who spent 40 years in the public school system as a teacher and as principal at four high schools. Reducing the bureaucracy would be at the top of his/her list. Bringing administrators back to the classroom could be a short term fix. Allowing teachers to teach and principals to lead instead of burdening them with time-consuming reports was another suggestion and one that I found support for in multiple articles.

Sadly, the starting salary for teachers is leading to fewer college students selecting education as a major which leads to difficulty finding new teachers to enter the pool as teachers are retiring in record numbers.

I found a research paper titled Seven Trends: The Transformation of the Teaching Force authored by Richard Ingersoll, Elizabeth Merrill, Daniel Stuckey, and Gregory Collins. The report was written in 2018, pre-pandemic and provides some interesting data regarding the teaching profession over time. One chart, printed below, supports the statement that I have read that half of all teachers leave the profession in five years. Their number is near that at 44.6 percent.   teacher attrition averaged eight percent a year

Overall, the authors write that teacher attrition averaged eight percent a year during the period that they examined. The authors write that much of their data comes from the National Teacher and Principal Survey, a large-scale survey designed by the National Center for Education Statistics. NCES just published the 2017-2018 report. Its data would not reflect any recent changes due to the pandemic or any number of other reasons for the decrease in teachers.

One of the items reported by Ingersoll, Merrill, Stuckey, and Collins was that the teacher workforce expanded greatly from 1987-88 through 2015-2016. NCES is the source of that data, and the graphic below provides a comparison of teacher growth vs. student growth over time.

teacher growth vs. student growth over time

One of the key outcomes with this workforce expansion is the reduction of classroom sizes. This implies that a temporary solution to the shortage could be an increase in class sizes although some of the workforce increase was due to the addition of specialty teachers such as those teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) and Special Education.

The paper utilizes NCES data to provide an overview of the “graying” of the teacher workforce. As you can see in the graphic below, there is a larger percentage of teachers nearing retirement at the end of the 2015-2016 measurement period than the 1987-88 starting point. Clearly if the environment triggered by the pandemic caused those eligible for retirement to do so, that could be another explanation for the shortage.

larger percentage of teachers nearing retirement at the end of the 2015-2016 measurement period

Lastly, the overall increase in the teacher workforce has led to a much higher percentage of teachers with little experience. The graphic below shows the numbers of teachers with five or fewer years of experience and how that has increased over time. If 44.6 percent of those who begin to teach each year leave by year five, relying on that percentage to maintain your totals could be iffy if the pandemic triggered their consideration to choose another career path.

much higher percentage of teachers with little experience

While it’s clear that we need to find ways to stabilize the K-12 teaching workforce, we need to also find ways to ensure that teachers can teach and that we are able to hire quality candidates.

In an Education Week opinion piece titled “’We Are Desperate, Too:’  A Message from a Teacher-Educator”, Leah Wasburn-Moses suggests four steps where higher education and K-12 can partner to reduce the teacher shortage. Ms. Wasburn-Moses, a professor of education at Miami University, writes that during the pandemic, many schools of education lost their field placements and K-12 partnerships. To address the teacher shortage, she suggests establishing teacher pipelines in the local communities. Her recommendation is that school districts and universities partner on recruitment, field placement, coaching, and special programming that can support home-grown teacher pipelines.

Districts that spend the time to try to match a teacher-candidate’s preference for a future placement can boost teacher quality and retention according to Ms. Wasburn-Moses. Candidates should be placed with an effective teacher instead of anyone who volunteers.

Many school districts that are spending their COVID-19 relief funds on tutoring are using teacher-candidates, and this is a move in the right direction writes Ms. Wasburn-Moses. Schools and universities should work together to align tutors’ assignments with teacher prep curriculum as well as create structures for coaching that support teacher quality and better outcomes for students.

In addition to tutoring, teacher-candidates who were unable to complete their field placement work during the pandemic could staff before- and after-school programs. They could also assist older students with their online coursework and provide Tier II small group, targeted support in certain areas.

Ms. Wasburn-Moses provides four suggestions for the benefit of teacher-candidates and schools:

  1. Concentrate teacher-candidates in a single school or district with the intention to address a specific school need or district goal.
  2. Offer each teacher-candidate regular coaching from both K-12 and higher education personnel.
  3. Make deliberate connections between field duties and assignments, with higher education personnel supporting each individual candidate.
  4. Place teacher-candidates with teacher-mentors who have demonstrated effectiveness in the classroom.

According to Ms. Wasburn-Moses, research has shown that K-12/higher education partnerships can result in more effective teacher-recruiting easing shortages as well as increasing teacher quality and retention. Her suggestion is that district leaders reach out to colleges and universities with clear expectations and goals as a way to create an effective partnership.

School districts that do not have a local college or university to partner with may want to consider companies like K12 Lift. K12 Lift is based in Florida and its evaluation process is designed for teachers and principals to evaluate the effectiveness of teaching as well as to build plans to improve teaching effectiveness. Working with multiple school districts allows them to cite best practices that work outside of the district for districts that they’re beginning to work with. There’s no reason that their process cannot be adapted to assist teacher-candidates’ effectiveness as well.

Some of the “short-term” solutions outlined in the Washington Post article are not the best long-term solutions. Sadly, politicians no longer seem to be interested in solving problems that can’t be solved tomorrow. In many areas, school board members either run for office or serve as politically appointed board members. Having a board that is completely aligned with the best ways to solve the teacher shortage could be problematic in our era of political partisanship. As much as I am a proponent of using technology that works to improve student learning outcomes and make education more affordable, a solution like this requires the intervention and collaboration of everyone. Failing to make education better for today’s students is impeding the future success of our nation. The sooner everyone realizes this, the better.

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence