Is there a national teacher shortage?

News headlines have painted a sobering picture of the teaching profession, claiming teachers are quitting and retiring at a record rate, creating a teacher shortage crisis like never before.

But some researchers say the threat is exaggerated, reported The Hechinger Report.

“Attrition is definitely up, but it’s not a mass exodus of teachers,” Dan Goldhaber, a labor economist at the American Institutes for Research (AIR), told The Hechinger Report. 

Goldhaber says that the number of teachers leaving the field is in line with historical patterns. The rate of teachers quitting and retiring from the profession, according to Goldhaber’s calculations in one state, Washington, was about 11 percent in 2020-21 – actually a smidge lower than it was in 2006-07, another year of high turnover when a strong job market lured educators away. Most departures were filled with new hires.

“Among researchers, I think we’ve reached a consensus that there hasn’t been an exodus of teachers during the pandemic,” Heather Schwartz, a researcher at the nonprofit research organization RAND, told The Hechinger Report. “I don’t see many district leaders saying we have a serious, severe shortage of teachers. I don’t see the crisis.”

“Are we going to have such extreme shortages, that we can’t even keep the doors open for schools?” Schwartz continued. “No, that’s not where policymakers need to spend their energy.”

Schwartz’s research organization discovered that 77 percent of schools “went on a hiring spree in 2021-22 as $190 billion in federal pandemic funds started flowing.”

“Yes there’s a shortage in the sense that they have unfilled open positions. But it’s sort of a misnomer to say the word ‘shortage’ because compared to pre-pandemic, there’s more people employed at the school,” said Schwartz.

According to a U.S. Department of Education survey, 30% “of vacant positions last school year were because of newly created roles,” reported Matt Barnum with Chalkbeat. “…[S]ome vacancies are due to heightened demand (districts want to hire more) rather than dwindling supply (teachers leaving or not applying).”

Which, still presents a problem, Barnum continues.

Districts are hiring more teachers for a reason — often because students are still behind academically — and if they can’t do so, that might derail recovery plans.

Not a new challenge

Certain subject areas such as math and science, special education, and higher poverty schools tend to have higher vacancy numbers, making them perennial challenges that existed pre-COVID.

…[F]ederal data shows about half of school leaders said it was very difficult to fill open teaching positions in math, science, foreign language, as well as special education roles. But it was easier to fill general elementary, social studies, and English positions.

So, is there a crisis?

It depends on how you count a shortage, Goldhaber told The Hechinger Report.

…[T]here’s no standardized way of defining or documenting a shortage and if even one district among hundreds reported difficulty in hiring a particular type of teacher, some states will document that as a statewide shortage in that category. 

When schools were asked specifically about any upcoming shortages for the 2022-2023 school year, “they did not anticipate a huge shortage,” according to an analysis by RAND.

Three-quarters of the districts said they expect a shortage, but most of them, 58 percent, said it would be a small shortage. Only 17 percent of districts anticipated a large shortage of teachers.

A June 2022 survey by the U.S. Department of Education found that 62 percent of school leaders said that the pandemic had made it more difficult to fill their open positions, reported Barnum.

But “there is still no evidence of a teacher exodus during the pandemic, though that could change,” continued Barnum.