The search for America’s missing teachers

Our schools are not only temporarily without teachers because of teacher strikes for better working conditions and more investment in education. Some schools are chronically short of teachers: they can’t find teachers able and willing to work at current wages and conditions.

The estimated teacher shortage of about 110,000 teachers may seem small in a labor force of about 3.8 million. But its sudden appearance after years of teacher surpluses and its consequences are certainly a large cause for concern. Teacher shortages depress student performance, reduce teachers’ effectiveness, alter the cohesion of the school, and consume economic resources that could be better deployed elsewhere. These consequences also make it more difficult to build a solid reputation for teaching and to professionalize it, further perpetuating shortages. Finally, the teacher shortage reflects school districts’ failure to make the kinds of investments (in smaller class sizes, in resources to meet the needs of students, and in teacher development) that the expanding teacher protest movement seeks.

EPI has published the first in a series of reports that will document some of the reasons why the demand for teachers is outstripping the supply. In our report we argue that when issues such as teacher qualifications and equity across communities are taken into consideration, shortages are more concerning than we thought.

If we consider the declining share of teachers who hold the credentials associated with teacher quality and effective teaching (they are fully certified, took the standard route into teaching, have more than five years of experience, and they have an educational background in the subject they teach), the teacher shortage grows. If we compare the share of these teachers in high-needs schools (schools with a large share of students from families living in poverty) with other schools, we see that the shortages there are even more severe in those high-needs schools.

Our research shows that as of the 2015–2016 school year, one in eleven (8.8 percent) of K–12 teachers in the country are not fully certified, over one-fifth (22.4 percent) of teachers are inexperienced (with five or fewer years of experience (22.4 percent), 17.1 percent followed an alternative route into teaching, and about one in three (31.5 percent) of teachers do not have an educational background in their subject of main assignment. Teacher quality, as measured by these shares, either eroded in recent years in some respects, or failed to improve in others, thus growing the teacher shortage. Children in high-poverty schools are consistently, albeit modestly in some cases, more likely to be taught by lower-credentialed and inexperienced teachers, meaning that the shortage of qualified teachers is more acute in high-poverty schools.

Table 1

Credentials of teachers in low- and high-poverty schools: Share of teachers with and without various credentials by school type

Total Low-poverty High-poverty Gap (high- minus low-poverty school)
Fully certified 91.2% 92.9% 90.1% -2.8 ppt.
Not fully certified 8.8% 7.1% 9.9% 2.8 ppt.
Took traditional route into teaching 82.9% 86.7% 81.1% -5.6 ppt.
Took alternative route into teaching 17.1% 13.3% 18.9% 5.6 ppt.
Experienced (over 5 years) 77.6% 80.2% 75.4% -4.8 ppt.
Mid-career (6–20 years) 54.3% 56.1% 53.3% -2.8 ppt.
Senior (over 21 years) 23.3% 24.1% 22.1% -2.0 ppt.
Inexperienced (5 years or less) 22.4% 19.8% 24.6% 4.8 ppt.
Novice (1–2 years) 9.4% 8.0% 10.4% 2.4 ppt.
Early career (3–5 years) 13.0% 11.8% 14.2% 2.4 ppt.
Educational background in subject of main assignment 68.5% 72.5% 66.2% -6.3 ppt.
Without an educational background in subject of main assignment 31.5% 27.5% 33.8% 6.3 ppt.

Notes: Data are for teachers in public noncharter schools. According to research and to the U.S. Department of Education, highly qualified teachers have the following four credentials: They are fully certified (with a regular, standard state certificate or advanced professional certificate versus not having completed all the steps); they took a traditional route into teaching (participated in a traditional certification program versus an alternative certification program, the latter of which is defined in the teacher survey questionnaire as “a program that was designed to expedite the transition of nonteachers to a teaching career, for example, a state, district, or university alternative certification program”); they are experienced (have more than 5 years of experience); and they have a background in the subject of main assignment, i.e., they have a bachelor's or master's degree in the main teaching assignment field (general education, special education, or subject-matter specific degree) versus having no educational background in the subject of main assignment. A teacher is in a low-poverty school if less than 25 percent of the student body in his/her class is eligible for free or reduced-price lunch programs; a teacher is in a high-poverty school if 50 percent or more of the student body she/he teaches are eligible for those programs.

Source: 2015–2016 National Teacher and Principal Survey (NTPS) microdata from the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics (NCES)

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When we realize that the teacher shortage problem is much worse than we thought, we understand that addressing it becomes more urgent than we thought. Whether teacher shortages result from excessive turnover or attrition, insufficient hires, unattractive working conditions, widened curriculums, student population increases, or other influences, their existence strongly suggests that we are not living up to our ideal of providing a sound quality education to all children. If we do not act, some of the causes projected to get worse will get worse, and thus threaten to turn shortages into a new ingrained characteristic of our education system.

Our goal with this series of reports is to provide evidence of the increasing challenges school districts are facing as they seek to hire teachers, the lack of interest in becoming a teacher, the increasing exodus from teaching, and what conditions might be behind these trends so that policymakers can design effective policy interventions. Research such as this can support—but not replace—the importance of listening to teachers. In their meaningful ongoing protests, they continue to teach us very useful lessons about potential long-term fixes to existing shortages.