Why is there a teacher shortage? Schools struggled nationwide in 2022

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  • New data shows teacher shortages remain just as widespread as they were in the summer, though the average number of vacancies has slightly declined.
  • The scale of the problem varies significantly by region, district, school, subject and grade level. Many areas have all the teachers they need.
  • The pay and pressures of the job are major – though hardly the only – reasons some schools are struggling to fill certain teaching positions.

Several years ago, Naomi Norman, superintendent of Washtenaw Intermediate School District in Michigan, had a conversation that changed her perspective on the needs of the teaching profession. It was with a special education teaching assistant adored by the school community and a natural at working with children with complex learning needs. 

Special education teachers were, and remain, hard to come by. The field needed people precisely like this paraprofessional to fill those roles, Norman thought, so why hadn’t he considered pursuing a degree to become a professional teacher? 

The aide explained he was the breadwinner for a family of five children and already working a second job to make do. He couldn’t afford to quit his day job, give up health insurance and go back to school, much less pay the tuition. Michigan is on the lower end when it comes to paraprofessional pay, with an average salary of less than $27,000, according to ZipRecruiter data.

The aide ended up leaving the education sector altogether soon after that. It’s become one of Norman’s missions to reduce such barriers into, and turnover from, the profession.

Fast-forward to the pandemic era: Special education teachers are even harder to come by, many of those barriers remain intact, and headlines have warned for months about catastrophic school staffing shortages nationwide.

Norman’s experience offers a glimpse into why vacancies have remained so stubborn at some schools. Here’s what you need to know about the state of teacher shortages, now that schools are close to halfway done with the school year.

Remote learning took its toll:The teacher shortages are just piling on.

Is there truly a teacher shortage?

There is no national teacher shortage. Many classrooms have all the educators they need and in some cases never had vacancies to begin with.

Yet shortages in many others persist. Staffing levels can vary significantly by state, district, school, subject and grade level. 

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) has been regularly surveying a nationally representative sample of schools about various topics, including staff vacancies, in the COVID-19 era. According to its latest School Pulse Panel survey, from October, nearly half (45%) of public schools have at least one vacant teaching position, about the same rate as when the survey was done in January. The average number of vacancies per school, however, dropped from slightly more than three in June to two this October. 

Generally speaking, 4% of teaching positions across the nation remained vacant, the October survey shows. But zooming in by subject area reveals significant variation.  

Special education continues to have it worst, with 7% of positions unfilled. English-language-learning programs are also especially understaffed (6%), as is computer science (5%). Areas with the fewest vacancies: social studies and English/language arts, at just 2% each. 

Is there a teacher shortage? Here’s what the data says.

Why are there shortages of teachers?

Myriad reasons: low pay and morale, mounting political and academic pressures, health and safety concerns. A generation of teachers hitting or nearing retirement and another generation of prospective teachers deterred by the profession’s flailing reputation and the sacrifices it necessitates. 

“We all know that our educators work very hard, and it’s not news to anyone that they often work beyond their required hours,” said NCES Commissioner Peggy Carr in a news briefing announcing results of a separate survey of teachers and principals. It showed teachers and principals work 52 hours and 58 hours a week on average, respectively.  

According to that same survey, 17% of teachers work elsewhere at another job.

There are also hurdles to joining the workforce, like those Norman, the Washtenaw school district superintendent in Ann Arbor, Michigan, described. 

Some state and district leaders are working to remove them, including a newly formed consortium of Michigan school systems aiming to bolster the pipeline into teaching. Norman is helping spearhead the initiative and piloting a grow-your-own program in her district, a regional agency that oversees the county’s special education services. The program has thus far paid three cohorts of 25 paraprofessionals each to earn teaching degrees and become certified special education teachers while continuing to work. 

The program has created a “natural network” of professionals who can fill the area’s perennial special education vacancies, Norman said. But “it’s not just a position filled. It’s a person supported. They’re walking into that role with a huge net of support around them.” 

Lack of such support has been another big reason some schools struggle to fill positions. COVID-19 aside, these challenges are not new – nor are some of the shortages. 

Which states have the worst teacher shortages right now? 

It’s hard to say definitively. States don’t collect all the necessary data in a consistent, comprehensive or timely manner. One recent working paper analyzed available data and found that vacancies were particularly pronounced in Florida, Illinois and Arizona. 

If national labor figures are any indication, teacher turnover has remained relatively stable since before the pandemic. But those statistics obscure what’s happening on the ground in many communities. 

Another recent working paper focused on Tennessee, examining data from the beginning of 2019-20. Relatively few schools had vacancies, but the ones that did were spread throughout the state – most regions had at least one school with positions they couldn’t fill. 

Test scores fell during the pandemic:How did your state fare?

How are teacher shortages affecting students?

Shortages tend to be worse in low-income areas. Fifty-seven percent of high-poverty schools that participated in the October School Pulse Panel reported at least one teaching vacancy, including well over a third with multiple openings. The same was true for 41% of low-poverty schools, less than a quarter of which reported multiple vacancies. 

Similar disparities emerge when looking at the racial composition of schools. Sixty percent of those where at least three-quarters of students are people of color have one or more vacancies, compared with less than a third of those where at least three-quarters of students are white. 

That means the shortages are concentrated at schools whose students were hit hardest by the academic disruptions of the pandemic. 

In other words, the children arguably most in need of qualified teachers are also most likely to attend schools who don’t have enough.

Keep reading USA TODAY’s education reporting in 2023 for more on teachers and the teaching profession.

Contact Alia Wong at (202) 507-2256 or awong@usatoday.com. Follow her on Twitter at @aliaemily.

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