Policy solutions to deal with the nation’s teacher shortage—a crisis made worse by COVID-19

Some estimates have put the shortage of teachers relative to the number of new vacancies in classrooms across the country that go unfilled at more than 100,000—a crisis exacerbated by the pandemic. But policy changes can go a long way in addressing this shortfall.

We lay out those policy solutions in our just-released paper, A Policy Agenda to Address the Teacher Shortage in U.S. Public Schools: The Sixth and Final Report in the ‘Perfect Storm in the Teacher Labor Market’ Series. It is part of an EPI two-year long project documenting the teacher shortage faced by U.S. public schools over the last few years and explaining the multiple factors that have contributed to it.

The culmination of this research coincided with the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the nation’s education system, which threatens to make the teacher shortage crisis even worse.

The added challenges mainly arise from three sources.

Teachers may be leaving the profession due to new challenges brought by COVID-19

First, with respect to the supply of teachers, growing evidence indicates an increase in teachers’ decisions to retire early as a result of COVID-19-related challenges that either mirror or exacerbate those described in our series of reports, and even bring in new ones:

  • unsafe working environments,
  • lack of supports,
  • stresses associated with remote instruction,
  • burnout, and other professional and personal factors.

At this stage of the pandemic, perceived lack of safety is likely a major factor. Around one in three teachers say that COVID-19 pandemic has made them more likely to retire early or leave the profession, a figure that increases to about one in two or more among those with more than 30 years of experience or those ages 50 or older (one in six public school teachers are 55 or older, according to the most recent NCES data).

The shortage in some states was actually artificially small because a significant group of older, more experienced teachers who were eligible to retire had stayed in the classroom into their 60s. Now, as the most vulnerable to COVID-19, they are likely to be the first to go.

Similarly, the challenges of teaching remotely, and the lack of support needed to do so well, will turn off new (and even less new) teachers, likely increasing already high rates of attrition. Moreover, the combination of losing colleagues to COVID-19 and the intense personal stresses and demands that the pandemic is exacting on virtually all teachers will likely drive out still more.

COVID-19 is increasing the number of teachers needed—but budget cuts caused by the economic recession will make it harder to meet that need

Second, the forces driving demand for teachers are in conflict. Meeting the safety requirements public health experts recommend for schools to operate safely, and providing the resources needed to lift up students who have lost ground, will greatly increase demand. At the most basic level, for example, just reducing class sizes to meet social distance requirements in class could substantially increase the number of teachers needed. (We further discuss needs for more, not fewer, highly credentialed teachers, below.)

Yet budgets for personnel and other needed resources are moving in the opposite direction.

Severe budget cuts affecting states have already reduced and are expected to further reduce the ability of school districts to satisfy the underlying demand. We know from the Great Recession and from recent estimates that budget cuts have led to severe reductions in public education jobs. Indeed, in April 2020 alone, U.S. public school systems lost close to 470,000 jobs—a more sudden and more severe version of what happened in the three years after the onset of the Great Recession, when more than 316,000 education jobs were lost. These losses will almost certainly become more severe as the recession drags on, especially if the federal government continues to fail to counter its impacts.

COVID-19 has highlighted just how critical the quality and equity aspects of the teacher shortage are

Third is the issue of quality and equity in education, the framework we explored in our series of reports.

Increased attrition among older teachers indicates a double loss, in terms of numbers and credentials, just at a time when the needs for more personalized instruction, smaller class sizes, and extended school schedules demand the opposite on the same two fronts. More highly credentialed teachers are needed to tackle the pandemic challenges and the inequities it has exacerbated. This will be especially important in high-poverty schools, where resources are already scarcest relative to the needs.

Policy recommendations

As troubling as this scenario is, the path forward is eminently viable. The policy agenda we set forth offers an effective strategy to retain highly credentialed teachers and attract new ones into the profession, and with the pandemic the adoption of our recommendations is even more urgent.

We structure the recommendations into two main buckets: system-level recommendations that would improve the education system broadly, and specific policy recommendations targeting the factors that contribute to the teacher shortage.

Overarching recommendations Specific proposals
Understand that the teacher shortage is caused by multiple factors and thus can only be tackled with a comprehensive set of long-term solutions. Raise teacher pay to attract new teachers and keep teachers in their schools and the profession.
Treat teachers as professionals and teaching as a profession. Elevate teacher voice and nurture stronger learning communities to increase teachers’ influence and sense of belonging.
Understand that the complexity of the challenge calls for coordinated efforts of multiple stakeholders. Lower the barriers to teaching that affect teachers’ ability to do their jobs and their morale.
Increase public investments in education. Design professional supports that strengthen teachers’ sense of purpose, career development, and effectiveness.

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As the pandemic persists, we cannot emphasize enough how critical it is for policymakers at all levels to act immediately. And they must learn from a critical lesson imparted by the prior recession and from the evidence: Failing to understand the close connections among resources, teachers’ working conditions, and the shortage will greatly exacerbate the problems we already faced going into the pandemic.

We can ill afford to make that mistake again. We must make more resources available to enable the relief, recovery, and rebuilding stages that will help us weather the pandemic, address the adverse impacts of COVID-19 on education, and build a stronger, more equitable public education system.