We Can Solve Teacher Shortages. Here’s How.

Well-tested solutions exist.
05/09/2017 12:54 am ET Updated May 09, 2017

Read more in Learning Policy Institute’s Solving Teacher Shortages blog

Across the nation, states, districts and communities are facing teacher shortages: 48 states plus the District of Columbia report shortages of special education teachers; more than 40 report shortages of mathematics and science teachers; more than 30 report shortages of bilingual/English as a second language teachers. Data show that shortfalls of teachers are worst in low-income communities in both urban and rural areas and in schools serving higher numbers of students of color.

There are many reasons for these shortages, but one thing is clear: Unless policymakers act soon, they will grow more severe, and the already-serious ramifications for students will worsen. These include cancelling courses, expanding class sizes, using a revolving door of substitutes, assigning teachers outside of their field of competence, and hiring untrained teachers. As one California district administrator put it: “In the end, the students lose.”

These strategies for meeting shortages often exacerbate the problems of staffing classrooms rather than solving them. For example, when states and districts decide or are forced to put untrained individuals into classrooms to fill vacancies, many flounder, and they leave at 2 to 3 times the rate of teachers who are fully prepared. These high rates of turnover mean that the district must continue to recruit for the same position all over again, at significant cost—estimated in urban areas at $15,000 to $20,000 per teacher who leaves. This is money that could have been used to pay for the pre-service training and induction support that would have produced a more effective teacher who would stay and contribute to a more stable teaching force.

This training—and the stability it enables—is critical for student learning. Research shows that high rates of teacher turnover have a negative impact on students’ achievement for all students in a school, not only those whose teachers have left. Student failure, in turn, carries other costs for student remediation, grade retention, summer school, specialist supports, and other interventions.

But things are changing. There are real, evidence-based solutions to teacher shortages and increasingly, policymakers on both side of the aisle are proposing legislation to implement them. Because the shortage is a complex problem and the reasons for shortages vary by state, district and community, there is no “one size fits all” solution. Policymakers and stakeholders must identify and pursue solutions that address the root causes of shortages in their areas.

Depending on the location, these include: a decline in teacher preparation enrollments—which may be particularly problematic in high-need fields; many districts’ current efforts to replace programs and teachers cut during the recent recession; increasing student enrollments; and high teacher attrition due to retirements (about 1/3 of annual leavers) or, more frequently, dissatisfaction with the profession.

As our research shows, teacher attrition in the U.S. accounts for about 90% of annual demand and is about twice as high as that in high-achieving countries like Singapore and Finland, so it is a critical area to address. If attrition were to be reduced from the current 8% to about 4%, we would currently have teacher surpluses instead of shortages. To solve high turnover, policies must directly address the reasons teachers cite for leaving the profession and the reasons that people who might become teachers choose alternate careers. Surveys and other studies show that these include: inadequate compensation and poor teaching conditions; inadequate investments in preparation and mentoring; lack of administrative support; pressures from recent accountability policies; lack of respect and voice in school decision-making; and inadequate opportunities for learning and collaboration.

Well-tested solutions exist. The Learning Policy Institute has reviewed research that identifies a range of effective policies that directly address the causes of the teacher shortage. They include policies that:

· Increase the supply of teachers through high-retention strategies that enable teachers to become well-prepared and commit them to service in the schools where they are needed, such as forgivable loans and service scholarships that underwrite preparation for teachers who will work in high-need fields and locations in exchange for a 3- to 5-year service commitment.

  • Establish teacher residency models for hard-to-staff districts to recruit and retain talented and diverse candidates in high-need schools while better preparing them for the challenges they will face.
  • Create career pathways and “Grow Your Own” programs to prepare committed individuals from urban and rural school districts who will return to teach in their communities.
  • Ensure competitive and equitable compensation, including incentives that make living as a teacher more affordable, such as housing supports, childcare supports, and opportunities to teach or mentor after retirement to more effectively recruit and retain teachers.
  • Develop strong, universally available mentoring and induction programs to increase retention and help slow the revolving door of beginning teacher turnover.
  • Strengthen administrator training programs to develop principals and district leaders who can create productive teaching and learning environments, which have a major impact on a teacher’s decisions to stay or leave the classroom.
  • Remove licensing barriers and pension rules that discourage teachers in one state from teaching in another.

Many of these policies are now being enacted in states across the country by both Democratic and Republican leaders. The first post in our new blog series, Solving the Teacher Shortage, describes many of those efforts. Future posts will explore such issues as the shortage of special education teachers, recruiting and retaining teachers of color, shortages of career and technical education teachers, the cost of teacher attrition, principals’ roles in recruiting and retaining teachers, the benefits of well-designed professional learning, teacher residency programs, and much more.

If we care about improving the quality of education for all students—especially those who are most dependent on schools for their success—we must find ways to solve teacher shortages once and for all by adopting sensible strategies that support a well-prepared and committed teaching force in all communities.

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