Unpacking Teacher Shortages

One of the current news items I’ve been mulling over is the conversation around teacher shortages. At the beginning of each school year, teacher shortages are a common theme in the popular press. What exactly does it mean that we’re having “teacher shortages”? At a very basic level, there are not enough teachers to fill available jobs. Shortages can also mean a lack of teachers certified in a subject area.

While it might be useful to interview local hiring administrators and district personnel to get a better sense of what’s happening on the ground, there are some federal data sources that might give us a clearer picture of teacher shortages. We can also think about the connection between teacher shortages and teacher preparation programs.

One source that is not widely used to estimate teacher shortages is the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS). The JOLTS data allows us to explore national trends in job openings and hires over the past ten years. The education services industry (which includes teachers) is one that, according to the most recent data, can be characterized as having a high amount of job openings and a low number of hires. Hiring has remained stable over this period, but openings have increased, especially since 2014 as the recession ended. In other words, there are more jobs to fill, but the supply of teachers has remained the same.

These data seem to support the claim that, nationally at least, teachers are in demand. However, the labor market for teachers has features that create “mobility frictions” preventing teachers from moving to open jobs, such as state-specific licensure policies and importable pensions.

There is also US Department of Education data that highlights teacher shortages (both by subject area and geographic area) over time. The DOE collects information from states on teacher shortages for the purposes of its loan forgiveness and TEACH grant programs. Federal definitions of teacher shortages cover three scenarios:

1. Teaching positions that are unfilled

2. Teaching positions that are filled by teachers who are certified by irregular, provisional, temporary, or emergency certification

3. Teaching positions that are filled by teachers who are certified, but who are teaching in academic subject areas other than their area of preparation

According to the most recent Teacher Shortage Area Nationwide Listing report, for school year 2016-17, all states reported subject-area shortages (some states reported geographic shortages as well). Subject-area shortages can reflect increased or changing curricular demands or an inadequate supply of teachers with the preparation and certification to teach a specific subject. States with the highest reported teacher subject-area shortages in 2016-17 included Nevada (84), Missouri (42), Arizona (40), and West Virginia (40).

What role do teacher preparation programs play? In Nevada, for example, the nine institutes of higher education that offer teacher prep programs produced 81 graduates in 2015-16. The modal subject area was elementary education (10), with English/language arts following close behind (8). Over 50 percent of the reported subject-area shortages explicitly state a need for subjects taught at grade six and above.

Nationally, we see similar stories—teacher prep programs are producing a surplus of elementary education majors, while many other fields report shortages that remain unmet over multiple years. Although students have the freedom to choose their major, this is an opportunity for schools of education to share information with their students to make better matches.

When teaching jobs remain open at the start of the year, research shows negative outcomes for students. State teacher shortages are impacted by policies that are unique to each state. States should work with teacher prep programs to produce candidates that are more aligned to their needs. Policymakers should think about the ways in which certification, licensure, and preparation produce (or don’t) the number of teachers needed to fulfill district needs.

— Constance Lindsay

Constance Lindsay is a research associate at the Urban Institute.

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

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