Addressing recent teacher shortage trends

Recently, alarming news reports have been warning that the US is heading toward a teacher shortage crisis (for examples see here, here, and here). Several states, including California, Arizona, Oklahoma, and Kansas, have been scrambling to staff their schools with qualified teachers.  Across the country, urban and rural schools seem to be having a particularly difficult time finding qualified teachers, especially in positions that serve special needs populations such as special education and English language learner students.  

Teaching has always been a profession with relatively high turnover, and predictions of impending shortages caused by increasing student enrollments and “baby-boomer” teacher retirements have been occurring since the early 1980s. And while there are always shortages in specific schools and positions, teacher shortages to date have not reached crisis proportions. So it is reasonable to wonder whether this spate of alarming reports represents the latest in a series that has been occurring for decades, or a foundational shift in the current education landscape.

There are a couple of trends suggesting the current shortages may be fundamentally different from previous shortages, and harbingers of a future crisis. Over the past 25 years, teacher turnover and attrition has been escalating slowly but steadily. Teacher turnover expert Richard Ingersoll has noted that this escalation in attrition, rather than a lack of qualified teachers, has caused some of the well-publicized 21st century teacher shortages. During the same year that President Bush called for recruiting 30,000 STEM teachers, for example, 26,000 experienced STEM teachers quit. Many teachers who quit do so early in their teaching careers, prompting Ingersoll to describe the supply of qualified teachers as a “leaky pipeline.”   

More recently, however, an unexpected trend has emerged, as enrollment in teacher certification programs has been dropping precipitously since the beginning of the decade. According to U.S. Department of Education data, there has been a 30 percent decline in enrollment in teacher certification programs from 2009-10 to 2013-14. A breakdown of the data down by certification program type is shown in the charts below.

Figure 1. Enrollment in traditional teacher certification programs at institutions of higher education from 2010-2014.



Figure 2. Enrollment in alternative teacher certification programs at institutions of higher education from 2010-2014.



Figure 3. Enrollment in alternative teacher certification programs not affiliated with institutions of higher education from 2010-2014.Figure-3-Non-IHE-Alternative



Enrollment fell by 30 percent in traditional teacher certification programs, 41 percent at alternative certification programs associated with institutions of higher education, and 29 percent at alternative certification programs not associated with higher education institutions.  There is no indication that the problem will be solved anytime soon, and every indication that it will get worse. Education Week’s readers, typically educational professionals, said in a poll that they would not recommend teaching as a profession by nearly a 5 to 1 margin.

While few dispute the shortage, it is not yet clear why potential teachers are turning away, though speculation abounds. Some pundits speculate that at a time when many students leave college saddled with student debt, an improving economic climate may be pushing otherwise interested students to better-paying professions. Others attribute at least part of the problem to the way educational reforms have impacted the profession. Eric Westervelt at NPR, for example, reported that high-profile controversies over such issues as the Common Core, high-stakes evaluation, and teacher tenure have contributed to a sense that teaching is an embattled and disrespected profession.  It is important to note, however, that while such speculation is natural and understandable, we honestly don’t know the causes behind the dropping enrollment. The trend is recent enough that rigorous, empirically defensible research that might provide a satisfactory explanation for it has not yet been done.

NNSTOY Teacher Career Pathways Model Graphic


So how can we reverse this trend and attract and retain quality teachers? Why Teach?, a recent report authored by lkmco and sponsored by Pearson, offers some insights. Although the report addresses teacher shortages in the United Kingdom, similarities between the UK and US teaching landscape are striking.  

The authors of Why Teach? found that pragmatic concerns like pay, benefits, and tenure are not the primary factors drawing people to the profession, but they play an important role. Particularly as they settle in and begin to have families, teachers need to feel that they can make a good living and enjoy good working conditions.  Opportunities for career development and pathways to advancement offer additional ways to maintain commitment and motivation, especially to younger teachers.

Teachers also seek a school culture that encourages collaboration, in which they are part of the instructional decision-making process. Although they recognize the benefits of traditional data-driven professional development, teachers want supports that acknowledge their interests and assets as teachers. Professional learning communities can provide such supports by giving teachers time, space, and a means to explore their passions and leverage their professional expertise. Empowering teachers to find their voice and develop solutions to issues that they identify as important will help to provide a sense of respect for teachers as professionals.

Finally, and most importantly, the authors found that teachers primarily enter the profession because they want to — and believe they will — make a difference in students’ lives.  Not surprisingly, teachers stay in the profession when they consider themselves to be effectively making an impact. Providing teachers with the authority and autonomy to decide how best to improve the lives of their students seems to be key to maintaining a motivated and committed workforce.


These three reports explore models that give teachers options to stay in the classroom.


Report cover graphicFull Report: Creating Sustainable Teacher Career Trajectories: A 21st Century ImperativeTeaching has historically been described as an “unstaged occupation,” with few opportunities to access higher earning and higher status positions. The main opportunity for career advancement for teachers is leaving the classroom to become a school administrator. This report offers a new vision of teacher career pathways that holds promise for recruiting and retaining excellent teachers who further student learning, providing consistent access to excellent teachers.

Report cover graphicFull Report: Teacher Career Advancement Initiatives: Lessons Learned from Eight Case StudiesMaintaining the most motivated, highly qualified teachers is an ongoing challenge for America’s schools. This second report in the series,shares lessons learned from studying eight teacher career advancement initiatives implemented across a variety of contexts.

Report cover graphicTwo-Page Overview: Creating Sustainable Teacher Career Pathways: A 21st Century ImperativeThis short overview includes a state-by-state analysis of current and proposed approaches for promoting teacher leadership in the US.


About the Author
Dan Murphy

Dan Murphy

Daniel Murphy is a research scientist at Pearson. His research includes the use of growth measures, adaptive testing, and data visualization techniques to inform instructional decisions and interventions. He previously lead research on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness End-of-Course program. Dr. Murphy has also conducted research examining item selection techniques for computer adaptive testing and the specification multilevel growth modules. He holds a doctorate degree in Educational Psychology with a specialization in Quantitative Methods from the University of Texas at Austin.