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Q&A: How Serious Is the Nationwide Teacher Shortage and Why Should We Care?

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Tamara Chapman

Senior Managing Editor

Feature  •
Nationwide teacher shortage

According to research by the Economic Policy Institute, the teacher shortage “is real, large and growing, and worse than we thought.” If current trends persist, the nationwide shortfall of qualified teachers could reach 200,000 by 2025, up from 110,000 in 2018. In other words, it’s time to take it seriously. Karen Riley, dean of the University of Denver’s Morgridge College of Education, fielded some questions about the shortage from the DU Newsroom. This email conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

What is driving the nationwide teacher shortage?

The problem basically boils down to two factors: recruitment and retention. Interest in teaching as a profession has declined, and only half of those who enter the profession remain for more than five years.

Karen Riley, dean of the Morgridge College of Education

When it comes to recruiting people to the profession, we find they are bombarded with messages about teaching being a low-prestige, low-paying job. Talented students simply are not encouraged to enter the profession and are guided toward better-paying jobs in business and STEM. This makes it harder for teacher preparation programs to meet certain workforce needs, such as increasing the diversity of the pipeline or recruiting potential teachers into high-needs fields. As a result, we’ve seen the creation of more alternative licensure programs, which often take less time to complete and, in many cases, put less qualified teachers in classrooms. This perpetuates the narrative about teaching as a low-status profession and exacerbates the situation, resulting in even fewer people going into the field.

The cost of higher education also plays a role. Incentive programs designed to entice new graduate education students and support them as they gain professional training are insufficiently funded. And the cost of pursuing an education degree can be frightening for those who already have student debt and who then look at the salary they will earn as an educator.

The retention question is just as complex. Teachers face plenty of job stress, some of it associated with poor working conditions, feelings of isolation, the pressures of high-stakes testing and inadequate support to meet the complicated needs of students. On top of that, mental and behavioral health challenges, as well as the effects of trauma and poverty, are present in classrooms across the country.

Challenges like these are driving new and veteran teachers from the profession. Many teachers feel ill-equipped and undersupported in their attempts to address the needs of their students. Teachers who remain in the classroom are spending more and more of their instructional time addressing problems they haven’t been trained to meet.

The current economy is also a factor. There are many options for talented individuals, so when the economy is good — and when the working conditions and pay for teachers are less than desirable — people move on to other jobs.   

Where is the problem most acute? In urban and suburban districts? In rural districts?

The teacher shortage generally impacts rural and high-poverty areas at a disproportional level. Rural communities are particularly impacted. Not surprisingly, these smaller communities often have fewer resources, but they do not have fewer needs. Compared to urban students, youth in rural communities demonstrate higher levels of mortality; suicide; obesity; tobacco, alcohol and illegal substance use; drinking and driving; teen births; and carrying weapons. These challenges put added pressure on rural schools, which are already facing staffing shortages, collegial isolation, reliance on uncertified teachers, compensation disparities, and perceptions that federal and state-level policies and reforms are designed with urban schools in mind. 

Regardless of location, many districts experience shortages in positions that are considered “hard to fill” — special education, for example. The U.S. Department of Education has been tracking teacher shortages by state and by area since 1990. Since that time, special education has been an area of shortage for the state of Colorado each and every year that data was reported.

It’s also important to highlight the lack of diversity in the teaching profession. Nationally, almost half of today’s students are non-white, while only 20% of educators are teachers of color. This continues to be an issue in Colorado as well, where we have about 10% teachers of color and 43% students of color. Increasing the diversity of our educators has to be a priority and must be coupled with training on cultural competence. Research shows that students perform better in school when their teachers share and/or understand their background and culture.   

What does a teacher shortage mean for schools and their students?

Teacher shortages place a big burden on current teachers. Shortages increase their stress and can lead to higher levels of turnover. It is a terrible cycle, and those who are impacted most are the children, particularly the most vulnerable children. This is a huge issue for our communities.    

Unfortunately, students in underserved schools are often educated by early-career teachers — by teachers who have less experience. But bridging the achievement gap requires the expertise of highly skilled teachers. Given the fact that teachers have the biggest impact on a student’s academic success, this dilemma is very concerning.

What can school districts do to retain both their young teaching professionals and their experienced teachers?

Since this is a complicated issue, it requires a multipronged approach. Two of the most commonly stated reasons why classroom teachers leave the profession are that they do not feel they have the support they need to be successful; and they face significant student issues for which they feel unprepared and underresourced to manage. 

Providing teachers with the support they need to do their jobs is one way to increase retention. School psychologists, social workers and counselors can provide essential support — not just to teachers, but also to students and their families. When teachers feel that they have the support they need to do their jobs effectively and to meet the educational and mental and behavioral health needs of their students, they are much more likely to remain in the profession. 

Teachers need professional development, just like any other professional, to grow their skills and effectively manage their classrooms. What is interesting is the type of professional development — and how it is implemented — that has an impact on teacher retention. There is a great deal of research on the type of support that is effective in increasing the skills of teachers and increasing their job satisfaction. Although in-classroom feedback is considered to be both helpful and central to continued improvement in instruction, it fails to increase teacher retention. Various research studies show that being part of a strong and supportive network of peers or a study group is most effective in retaining teachers and one of the strongest predictors of improved student performance. Teachers learn and grow most effectively by working with one another and by engaging in networked improvement communities. This is not surprising, as it decreases the sense of isolation and creates a sense of community. So we need to consider this at the individual school and district level and facilitate these types of learning environments. For educators in rural settings, the use of technology to offer professional development and to develop virtual networked improvement communities is crucial.

It also has become clear that the K-12 and higher education systems need to work together to design and implement programs and practices that support the transition from novice to expert teacher. This can improve teacher satisfaction and effectiveness and thus increase retention. 

What are the major ramifications for our communities if we don’t address this problem?

The success of schools has a direct economic impact on local communities. Successful schools result in stronger neighborhoods, increased industry and higher property values. The converse is also true. When schools struggle, communities and neighborhoods deteriorate. Businesses move out, and property values plummet. 

Teaching is arguably the most important profession in the world. Without teachers, we do not have physicians, engineers or entrepreneurs. Teachers literally shape the future of our society, and they deserve our respect and support. Children who do not have access to effective teaching are less likely to thrive and to become contributing members of our society.

We cannot afford to lose talent of any kind, and our future depends on the success of our children. When we fail to provide a child with an education, our entire society suffers.