For the past couple years, schools across the country have struggled to keep their classrooms fully staffed. Will that trend continue?
A team of researchers has spent the last few years trying to determine the scope of teacher shortages in the country by counting the number of vacancies and positions that are filled by teachers who aren’t fully certified or are not certified in the subject area they’re teaching. To do so, the researchers have collected data from news reports and education department websites and asked state departments for vacancy numbers when they weren’t published online.
The researchers also used federal Title II to analyze the number of people who both enrolled in and completed teacher-preparation programs over the past decade.
The team initially published this data in fall 2022 and updated it this fall. Tuan Nguyen, the lead researcher and an associate professor at Kansas State University, said he hopes to continue updating the data every school year.
Education Week spoke to Nguyen about what the data say about teacher shortages now and in the future and why it’s important to have more publicly available vacancy data. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You started collecting these data in 2021. What have you learned since then about teacher shortages?
Over the last two years, teacher vacancies seem to have been increasing substantially since the onset of the pandemic. Last year, when we first put out the report and the website, compared with now—it’s increased to 55,000 vacant positions from 36,000 before. That’s a substantial increase.
And then we also learned that the number of underqualified positions is around 270,000 nationally, which is a substantial portion of teachers—about 9 or 10 percent of teachers in the United States. There seems to be a substantial number of vacant positions and positions that are filled by teachers who don’t have a standard license or who are under emergency certification or [who teach] out of subject expertise.
Not all states are reporting 2022-23 data. Why is there such a lag?
There are two different problems. One is, some states don’t collect this information at all. So they don’t report this information ever as far as we can tell. There are a handful of states for which we know very little or nothing about the number of vacant positions—like New York, for instance. And you think, “Wow, that’s a populous state. They have millions of students, you should know something about that.” We don’t.
And in some states, they do collect the information, but they don’t report on it on a regular basis. So then we only get it every few years. One of the things that we have found since we started this project is that there are more states now that [have] this recognition that we need to know this information, because otherwise, it’s hard to think about policies that can be implemented to address these issues. So they are starting to collect some of this information and make it available—like Pennsylvania, for instance, is going to, from here on out, collect data on vacancies.
Why is it important to have clear data, both on the state and national levels?
At the state level, I think that’s fairly straightforward. It’s hard to think about the number of respective candidates that you might want to attract into the teaching profession if you don’t know how many vacant positions you have. That’s going to vary from district to district. But states are the ones that are accrediting teachers—they should know how many vacant positions they have.
If they have just 30 vacant positions for their entire state, then you don’t think that’s a very big deal. That’s a very small [percentage] of the teacher workforce in that state. But if you have 5,000 vacant positions, then you think, OK, there’re substantial gaps here in where teachers want to teach and whether or not they want to teach at all.
Say in Florida where they’ve had 4,000 vacancies last year, 5,000 vacancies this year—is it a matter of they don’t have enough prospective candidates? Or is it because there’s an increase in turnover … from those who are certified but don’t want to go back to teach? Unless we know this information, it’s really hard to figure out what we need to do at the state level.
At the national level, then we have to think about—because we have 50 states, and they have different requirements, and you can’t easily move from state to state—if we see this issue consistently across the United States or in specific pockets. Then, what are some policy solutions that we can implement at the federal level? We have to think about this from the national perspective as well as the local.
What is your forecast for teacher turnover this year?
This is one of the things that we are continuing to work on. Forecasting the teacher turnover, as we’re learning, is very, very hard. We think that teacher turnover is going to peak either last year or this year, and over the next couple years, we think it’s going to decrease.
It is a question of whether or not the teacher-vacancy issue will increase or decrease in the next two [school] years. From ‘21-22 to ‘22-23, we did see a substantial increase in vacant positions, but it’s unclear to me whether or not that’s going to continue—in part because turnover might decrease, but also because some districts are using ESSER funds to hire teachers, and that’s going to run out [in September].
Some states are losing a substantial portion of their student enrollment, so there may be situations where some districts may actually have to let teachers go. There may be a surplus of teachers in some districts. And then there are some districts that are going to still have a high need for teachers.
You also looked at teacher-prep program enrollment and completion numbers. What is the outlook there?
In terms of enrollment, there have been substantial declines since the early 2010s. It has stabilized around 600,000 prospective teachers every year. And that has increased a little bit over the past couple of years. We think it’s going to remain fairly flat. It may increase a little bit but not a substantial amount—not back up to the 700,000 that we observed last decade.
The thing that’s more disconcerting to many of us is the number of completers. That has continued to decline, and it’s flattening out at around 159,000. Over the last five to 10 years, we have already tapped into the reserve pool of teachers to meet demand. We may be running that teacher reserve pool dry, and that’s in part why we see this increase in teacher vacancies and underqualification.
What is the big takeaway here for the health of the teacher pipeline and the state of shortages?
Part of the problem is there are so many moving parts. If student enrollment continues to decrease, then that’s going to be a very different set of problems for our education system. It depends on what kind of assumptions you want to make about that—I think that would have direct consequences for the number of vacancies and underqualification.
Let’s say that you assume that student enrollment is going to regain the loss over the last couple of years, then I think we are going to need to think about how do we prepare more teachers? How do we get more of them to complete the programs and then join the labor market?
But if student enrollment is going to decline or stay where it is now, then there are some districts, and some states even, where they may have a surplus of a certain type of teachers, while just a few miles over, you may have districts that are still in dire need of having certain types of teachers, like [science, technology, engineering, and math] teachers or special ed. teachers.
I don’t think that anybody has a clear prediction of what it’s going to be. It’s going to depend on a lot of how things are going to be changing over the next couple of years. At the end of the day, though, I think that unless we can have more up-to-date information, it’s going to be really hard for policymakers and for teacher-prep programs to think about what they need to do in order to meet demands. We should not be making decisions without having clear data to guide our decisions.