Beyond the numbers: What teaching shortages look like in practice

In a recent report, we reviewed the size and scope of the national teacher shortage using data from a wide range of public and private sources, including the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the National Center for Education Statistics, the RAND Corporation, and others. The available data consistently point to a large and growing problem of teacher vacancies that looks unlikely to be filled without substantial efforts to increase job quality for teachers.

But in pulling together our report, we realized that the statistics we presented don’t fully capture what shortages actually look like—in practice—for school districts, teachers, and students. To convey at least a part of that missing texture, we’ve pulled together some recent journalistic and more granular accounts of how state and local school education officials have responded to the long-term rise in teacher vacancies. Unfortunately, almost all of these have proved to be less than ideal for teachers and students.

One common method of dealing with teacher shortages has been to extend the practice of online teaching, an approach used extensively earlier in the pandemic. These “teacher-saving” strategies include streaming from one in-person class simultaneously to classrooms at multiple schools, and outsourcing lessons for specific subject areas to companies offering online programs. According to a report in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, for example, several teachers at Momentum Academy in St. Louis, Missouri livestream their classes to students at three other campuses across south St. Louis. One seventh-grade math teacher at the school livestreams to the three other schools daily and travels to those schools for in-person instruction once a week. Alternatively, PBS reports that the Colonial School District in New Castle Hundred, Delaware, which started the 2022 school year with more than 20 teacher vacancies, has outsourced math, science, and French classes for over 1,200 students to two online learning businesses: Back to Basics (Learning Dynamics Inc.) and Edgenuity Inc.

Other schools are trying to fill teacher vacancies by experimenting with four-day school weeks. Some school districts tried four-day school weeks to save money after the 2008 recession decimated public education budgets, but The Wall Street Journal reports that now some school officials have turned to four-day weeks in an attempt to attract and retain teachers. The Journal cites Oregon State University professor Paul Thompson, whose research found that the number of national school districts with four-day school weeks increased from 650 prior to the pandemic to more than 800 in 2022. Journalist Zaid Jilani reports that in New Mexico, the Socorro Consolidated Schools have turned to a four-day work week to fill vacancies, replacing an earlier policy of recruiting teachers “from as far away as India and the Philippines.”

Still, other school districts have responded to the teacher shortage by lowering the standards to be considered a qualified teacher. In some cases, this has been done to allow parents and veterans to fill vacancies either as full-time teachers or as substitutes. The Washington Post reports that the Hays Consolidated Independent School District near Austin, Texas, was able to triple their pool of approved substitute teachers by waiving the requirement of at least 30 hours of college credit and hiring “eligible noncertified” parents. NBC News reports that schools in Idaho, Colorado, California, and Massachusetts have turned to parents to staff schools. In July of this year, Florida passed Senate Bill 896, which allows some military veterans who have not completed their bachelor’s degrees to receive a five-year temporary certificate to teach. According to ABC News in Cleveland, Ohio state lawmakers introduced a similar piece of legislation which, if passed, would allow veterans to bypass any teaching qualification requirements by “completing four years of service, having been honorably discharged and having a reference letter from a former commanding officer that says the veteran is qualified to teach.”

Finally, the most brute-force methods some school districts have adopted to address the teacher shortage are simply to cancel courses where vacancies are hard to fill or to increase class sizes until the vacancies mechanically disappear. The Learning Policy Institute, for example, notes that available data “most likely underrepresent the extent and impact of [teacher] shortages because districts often address shortages by canceling courses, increasing class sizes, or starting the school year with substitute teachers.” The PBS story on Delaware that we mentioned earlier, for example, also reports that some schools have closed vacancies by as much as doubling the number of students a teacher would normally supervise.

All these responses to the teacher shortage—online teaching, four-day school weeks, lowering standards, canceling courses, and increasing class sizes—reduce teachers’ effectiveness and threaten students’ ability to learn. These coping strategies are also evidence—independent of the data—of the depth of the teacher shortage that some observers attempt to deny.