Figuring Out When to Panic About “Teacher Shortages”

How journalism could clarify stories about teacher hiring problems
Whether teacher supply problems reflect challenges unique to schools cannot be understood without considering the economy as a whole. This is especially true now, when tight labor markets are forcing employers to address “worker shortages” across the country.

The pace of teacher hiring picks up over the summer. So does the pace of reporting on the topic.

Teacher hiring is a difficult topic to report on at the best of times. In the current public health and economic context, it is even harder. This means reporters—and readers—must juggle a lot of nuance to understand the staffing situation in their local schools or in schools nationwide.

Here are some tips for writing (or reading) stories about teacher hiring challenges in ways that capture that nuance and that may help prevent narratives from getting ahead of the evidence.

Avoid the phrase “teacher shortage” or define it very clearly.

Perhaps the most common narrative in annual coverage of teacher hiring is that there is a “teacher shortage.” However, that phrase can mean different things. Many people—including some researchers—would say that a shortage exists only if there are not enough teachers to fill open positions. Yet others, including some school leaders, might use the term “shortage” when they are not satisfied with the quality of applicants or wish they had more applicants to choose from.

Those are all important problems, but some are more serious than others. They have different implications for school operations and may have different solutions.

This might be a reason to avoid the phrase “shortage” altogether. Phrases like “teacher supply problems” or “school staffing problems” might be better for capturing the wide range of staffing troubles schools might have. At a minimum, it is important to be explicit about the specific type of “shortage” a story is referring to. Readers should come away understanding what or who, precisely, is in short supply.

Be clear about which teaching jobs are—and are not—proving difficult to fill.

When discussing teacher hiring, a fundamental challenge is that there is no single “teacher supply” or “teacher labor market.” Even schools in different parts of the same state or district may have different numbers of teachers who are interested in working in them. For example, teachers prefer working in schools with better working conditions, including colleagues and school leaders they esteem, and with more local amenities, such as nearby restaurants, coffee shops, parks, and libraries. So, the hiring situation at one school may give a misleading impression about the situation at other schools, even those that are nearby.

Another complication is that most teachers are only willing or able to teach specific subjects or grade levels. This means a school could struggle to hire enough special education teachers even if it has little trouble filling many general education positions.

The subtleties of which positions are hardest to fill are important for conveying the severity of problems for different schools and students. They also have implications for potential solutions. For example, it may be useful to increase the progressivity of school funding so high-need schools can pay teachers more. Or it could be useful to increase financial incentives for harder-to-staff teaching positions.

If readers perceive only a general “teacher shortage” they may overlook these possibilities in favor of solutions aimed at increasing the overall supply of teachers. These measures might not be effective for getting more of the specific kinds of teachers needed in the specific schools that need them.

Focus on consequences for schools and students.

For many readers what is of interest is not the ability to fill teaching positions, but how well schools are able to achieve objectives for students and the community. This can be difficult to judge because how schools operate is often not very intuitive.

For instance, if a school is “unable to fill” a teaching position, it may be natural to assume that students in a classroom will be left with a substitute or that class sizes will increase. But another possibility could be that the classroom is instead staffed with a skilled teacher whose credential is “wrong” for technical regulatory reasons. And for schools flush with pandemic relief aid, the position in question may not have existed previously anyway.

Here are some questions reporters and readers can ask to make it clearer how, specifically, schools are affected by hiring challenges:

  • How much larger are class sizes than they otherwise would be?
  • How are schools lowering their standards for applicants?
  • Are schools getting waivers to hire certified teachers who happen not to have a specific required teaching authorization? Or are they calling in substitutes? (Since degrees and credentials are generally weak predictors of teacher effectiveness, the former may be less concerning than the latter.)
  • Are districts raising salaries? For what does that leave less money?

Put teacher supply problems in the context of the school system and the rest of the economy.

If stories simply provide the number of “unfilled” positions, the numbers might sound ominously large. And they may be seriously large. But people often do not have good intuitions about the scale of schools. A useful starting point is to compare the number of positions that cannot be filled to the total number of positions that exist. For example, as a percentage.

Readers also may not know whether or why circumstances have been changing, which might affect how they interpret hiring challenges. For example, are schools struggling to find teachers because enrollment is growing, or they are increasing hiring to try to spend Covid relief funds? Has there been a surge in retirements or other departures? These factors might suggest that the fundamental problem is not the teacher supply, but something else (like working conditions).

This kind of context can be provided to readers. As an example, reporting that “As in other years, about 5 percent of teaching positions were not yet filled by the first day of class” might convey a different meaning than, “Teacher retirements have not surged as many feared. However, due to efforts to hire more teachers to combat learning loss, for the first time in recent memory 5 percent of teaching positions remained unfilled on the first day of class.”

Reporters, readers, and policymakers might also explore whether staffing issues are unique to schools or are typical of hiring difficulties in the rest of the economy, in sectors from hospitality to retail to healthcare. Would some of the solutions being floated for the overall economy—from increased immigration to more housing near jobs to relaxation of occupational licensing requirements to more accessible childcare—eventually also help schools fill jobs? In any case, whether teacher supply problems reflect challenges unique to schools cannot be understood without considering the economy as a whole. This is especially true now, when tight labor markets are forcing employers to address “worker shortages” across the country.

The Big Picture

Teacher hiring is complicated and counterintuitive. And clear data on teacher hiring and teacher shortages are often hard to come by. This can make it easy for stories to inadvertently mislead readers or to perpetuate narratives that obscure a lot of nuance. Fortunately, there are straightforward ways to make stories about teacher hiring challenges more useful and informative. The immediate commercial and professional incentives of journalism don’t always reward news organizations and journalists for subtlety and context. And many reporters have limited capacity and support for deep investigations, especially in local newsrooms. Long term, though, students and taxpayers will do better when decisions are driven by good information.

Paul Bruno is assistant professor of education policy, organization, and leadership in the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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