As we ring in 2023, New Year’s resolutions for too many educators include plans to find new job opportunities as they look to leave the teaching profession in record numbers. This year’s crop of back-to-school stories has been dominated by the news of teacher resignations leading to widespread teacher shortages and the desperate attempts by numerous schools and districts to get adults—any adults—into classrooms, with many resorting to hiring untrained military veterans, mobilizing the National Guard, and drawing from teaching pools overseas.
How Bad Are Teacher Shortages?
While the United States has experienced recurrent shortages for decades, the pandemic has turned a periodic blaze into a five-alarm fire. According to the U.S. Department of Education, all 50 states have reported shortages in more than one area for this school year; among them are widespread shortages of special education teachers (48 states), science teachers (46 states), and math teachers (44 states). In March, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that nearly half of all U.S. schools were experiencing shortages. And a RAND Corporation study found that nearly all school districts changed operations in one or more of their schools during the 2021–22 school year because of teacher shortages—including combining classes, cancelling courses, and asking teachers to take on additional duties.
An August 2022 study examining the most recently available state data found that there were nearly 200,000 teaching positions across the country that were vacant or held by underqualified teachers hired because qualified applicants could not be found. These teachers are disproportionately found in schools serving the most students of color and those from low-income families, providing the least expert instruction to those who need it most. Furthermore, these teachers leave in their first year at rates more than twice those of fully prepared teachers, creating churn that depresses student achievement and further exacerbating shortages when departing teachers have to be replaced.
Since the pandemic, an alarmingly high number of teachers have been signaling their intentions to leave: A national survey of teachers in January 2022 reported that 90% had experienced burnout, 74% had had to fill in for colleagues or take on other duties due to staff shortages, and more than 55% planned to leave education sooner than originally planned (a number that is even higher among Black and Latino/a teachers). And indeed, an August 2022 survey of school district leaders revealed a 40% increase in teacher retirements and resignations the prior year as compared to 2019.
Meanwhile, the pipeline of incoming educators has been dwindling for many years, with teacher education enrollments down by more than a third between 2008 and 2019, and the steepest drops in fields with the greatest demand: math, science, bilingual education, and special education.
Despite the evidence, some analysts have argued that teacher attrition and associated shortages are not concerning—and do not warrant “frightening” solutions like raising teacher salaries—because they are concentrated in certain regions and subjects. But this is like saying that the house is not on fire because only three of its five rooms are burning.
Why Are Teachers Leaving?
While the stresses of the pandemic have encouraged many teachers to leave the profession, U.S. teacher attrition has been high for the past 20 years (about 8%, compared to about 3 to 4% in countries such as Canada, Finland, and Singapore) and creates about 90% of the demand that generates constant shortages.
This should not be surprising, since teaching conditions in the United States compare poorly with those of other professions and of teachers in other industrialized countries. In 2021, U.S. teacher salaries were 23.5% lower than those of other college graduates, after adjusting for differences in the work year. In fact, teacher salaries have been nearly flat since 1996 in real dollar terms, while other college-educated workers experienced a 30% increase during that time. And the U.S. ranked 29th out of 30 countries surveyed by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 2020 on wage competitiveness for middle school teachers, who earned only 60% of the salaries of other college-educated workers, while those in at least seven countries—including teachers in high-performing Finland, Estonia, and Germany—earned as much or more than their counterparts with college degrees.
Salary levels affect the quality and supply of teachers. In Finland, for example, where teaching is a highly respected profession, salaries are competitive, and federal funds completely pay for teacher education, a former Finnish teacher noted, “It was harder to gain entry to the University of Helsinki’s teacher education program (6.8% acceptance rate) than the law program (8.3% acceptance rate) or the medical school (7.3% acceptance rate) in 2016.”
By contrast, during the past decade, 36 U.S. states have had average teacher salaries low enough that mid-career teachers who are head of household for a family of four qualify for several kinds of government benefits. Controlling for other factors, teachers in districts with the highest salary schedules are 31% less likely to leave their schools or the profession than teachers in districts with lower pay scales.
Although compensation is certainly a factor for both attracting and retaining teachers, topping the list on most surveys of leavers are poor teaching conditions, which include long hours and large class sizes. Among 49 countries in the 2018 OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS), U.S. teachers (along with their colleagues in Chile) spend the greatest number of hours per week and year in front of students—8 hours more per week than the international TALIS average. U.S. teachers also work long hours outside of school and total about 8 hours more per week than the average teacher internationally. They are allotted among the lowest number of hours for in-school collaborative planning each week, doing most of their planning and grading at home, and they have class sizes above the international average.
Other common reasons cited for leaving include test-based accountability policies, lack of influence over school policies and practices, lack of autonomy in the classroom, inadequate opportunities to collaborate with colleagues, and inadequate opportunities for leadership or professional advancement—all symptoms of a de-professionalized occupation.
What’s the Solution?
The single most powerful predictor of student achievement, especially for students of color, is the presence of well-qualified and experienced teachers. Yet in the face of shortages, a number of states have been reducing or even eliminating standards for entering teaching. Florida, for example, now allows military veterans without a B.A. to teach for 5 years while they undergo training. Arizona has eliminated the B.A. requirement entirely. Many other states allow teachers to enter on emergency permits without having preparation in the content areas they will cover or in how to teach. Addressing teacher shortages by focusing on getting warm bodies into classrooms won’t solve the country’s chronic challenges and will shortchange students.
Rather than rush in with band-aid approaches such as lowering requirements, policymakers should address foundational issues, as high-achieving nations and some U.S. states have done. These jurisdictions have made deep commitments to professionalizing teaching by developing a well-prepared, well-supported workforce that attracts highly qualified candidates who are motivated to become—and remain—teachers.
States are primarily responsible for education policy, and many have major work to do to create competitive salaries, high-quality and affordable entry pathways, and supportive teaching and learning conditions. Given the dire straits the profession is in—and the desperate need for a well-prepared, stable teaching force to support learning recovery for students impacted by the pandemic—the federal government should also take action, as it did in the post-Sputnik years with the National Defense Education Act and a number of other measures that brought tens of thousands of people into teaching. A focused and purposeful set of policies, on the order of the post–World War II Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe, is needed. Such a plan would require the following:
Create affordable pathways into the profession: Such a plan would require, first, that federal and state governments expand service scholarships and loan forgiveness programs, paying down student debt while college graduates are teaching. The aim should be to fully cover preparation costs at the undergraduate and graduate levels for recruits who teach in a high-need field or location for at least 4 years. (After 3 years, teachers are more likely to remain in the profession and make a difference for student achievement.)
Provide federal tax credits for teachers: Refundable federal tax credits for teachers could begin to level the compensation playing field for teaching in comparison to other professions and incentivize service in high-need areas where there are less state and local resources than in wealthier areas. The pay gap could be bridged if early childhood educators and those teaching in high-need public schools received a maximum credit of $15,000, which would boost the average k–12 teacher’s salary by 25% and the average preschool teacher’s salary by nearly 50%, lifting them out of near-poverty status. Other k–12 public school educators could receive a credit based on a sliding scale determined by how many students from low-income families are served in their schools.
Improve teacher preparation programs and expand teacher residencies: As in medicine, the federal government should work with states to support improved preparation, including teaching schools that function like teaching hospitals. Just as teaching hospitals that train doctors for state-of-the-art practice are supported by federal funding through Medicare and Medicaid, teaching schools that demonstrate best practices attached to university preparation programs should be funded to enable candidates to learn how to teach diverse learners well. Effective models have already been created by universities sponsoring professional development schools and by school districts offering urban and rural teacher residencies that place candidates with expert mentor teachers in schools designed to support them while they complete integrated coursework. These residencies are district-university partnerships that solve shortages by underwriting the preparation of excellent candidates, subsidizing top-quality training, and offering a living stipend in exchange for several years of service in the sponsoring district(s).
Provide mentors for early career teachers: High-quality mentoring for all beginning teachers would sharply reduce attrition and increase competence. With one third of new teachers leaving within 5 years, and rates much higher for those who are underprepared and who lack mentoring, recruitment efforts are as effective as pouring water into a leaky bucket. A federal matching grant to states and districts that create high-quality mentoring and induction programs for beginning teachers—who most often teach in high-need schools—would reduce churn, heighten teaching quality, and heighten student achievement.
Implement recruitment incentives to attract teachers to high-needs schools: Such incentives could be designed to attract and retain expert, experienced teachers who can provide teaching and mentoring in high-need schools, such as those certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. These teachers have been found to be highly effective as teachers, mentors, and colleagues, raising the level of practice and student outcomes in their classrooms and schools. Federal matching grants could leverage policies like those recently adopted in California, which offer stipends of $5,000 annually for Board-certified teachers who work in high-poverty schools, so that they can help support new teachers and other colleagues to reduce attrition and enhance the quality of teaching.
The importance of teachers to students and society cannot be overstated; teaching is the profession on which all other professions depend. Our society needs great teachers to nurture great learners—people who are empowered to be curious, to imagine, to tackle the enormous problems we face today and those we can’t yet foresee. Our investments in teachers are investments in our children and in our collective future.
Learning Policy Institute Director of State Policy Tara Kini and Deputy Director of Federal Policy Michael DiNapoli contributed to this piece.