A new Economic Policy Institute report documents the size and scope of the long-standing teacher shortage in the United States, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic.
The data show that the teacher shortage is both widespread and especially severe in schools with high shares of students of color or students from low-income families. Teaching vacancies cut across geographic location and subject areas and are particularly acute in special education and substitute teaching.
The current shortage is not the result of an insufficient number of qualified teachers, according to the report. Instead, the research points to two key drivers of the shortage:
- Low teacher pay relative to other occupations that employ college graduates. Recent EPI research found that teachers made on average 23.5% less per week of work than their nonteacher college-educated counterparts in 2021.
- The increasingly stressful work environment teachers face. According to a January 2022 RAND Corporation survey, teachers report higher levels of stress, burnout, and symptoms of depression than other working adults. Another recent RAND survey found that stress is a leading cause for leaving teaching in a public school.
“Low pay and highly stressful working conditions have made teaching a much less attractive profession than alternatives available to workers with college degrees,” said EPI senior economist John Schmitt, who co-authored the report. “This kind of shortage will not be solved simply by increasing the potential number of qualified teachers. Any serious solution to the teacher shortage must address the root causes—by raising teacher pay and improving working conditions.”
To illustrate the shortage, the report focuses on the large and growing share of unfilled teaching vacancies; the rising share of teachers leaving their jobs each year; and the declining interest in the teaching profession, which is reflected in falling enrollment in and completion of teacher preparation programs. The report shows that these trends long predate the COVID-19 pandemic but have grown more acute since 2020.
Teacher vacancy rates were higher on average in schools with higher shares of students of color, according to School Pulse Panel data. One in every eight schools (13%) with 75% or more students of color had teacher vacancies in excess of 10% of total teaching staff, versus 7% in schools where students of color made up less than 25% of students. Teacher vacancy rates have also been consistently higher in schools in high-poverty areas. Fifteen percent of schools in high-poverty neighborhoods, for example, had teacher vacancies of 10% or higher, compared with 8% in low-poverty neighborhoods.
Even with recent declines in the share of individuals completing teacher preparation courses, the number of qualified (or potentially qualified) teachers substantially exceeds the number of teaching vacancies. The shortage is, instead, the result of a lack of qualified teachers willing to work in what has long been a highly stressful job for compensation that is well below what is available to college-educated workers in other professions.
“A shortage of teachers harms students, teachers, and the public education system as a whole. A lack of sufficient, qualified teachers reduces teachers’ effectiveness and threatens students’ ability to learn, undermining the education system’s ability to provide a sound education equitably to all children,” said Katherine deCourcy, EPI research assistant and co-author of the report.