A Long-term Solution to Teacher Shortages: A Big-Picture Review


We’ve all heard the saying, “You can’t see the forest for the trees.” When it comes to state policies that affect the teacher workforce, we need to make sure we see both.

Each individual teacher is important. He or she will make life-long impressions on thousands — the average teacher helps shape over 3,000 students during their career.

Each individual teacher is important. He or she will make life-long impressions on thousands — the average teacher helps shape over 3,000 students during their career. Every single teacher is responsible for helping to raise the next generation to understand the world and develop the skills and knowledge to become productive, well-rounded citizens. Getting a quality education can lead to increased wealth, tolerance, political participation, better health and self-esteem, reduced crime rates and general stability of our society. And teachers make or break a child’s school-based education. When it comes to student performance, teachers are estimated to have two to three times the effect of any other school factor, including services, facilities, and even leadership.

And yet, the forest is important too. States are facing unprecedented teacher workforce shortages. In the 16-state SREB region, all states have shortages in at least three subject areas — some face shortages in all academic subject areas. And 14 of the 16 states are seeing declines in the number of new teacher candidates graduating from preparation programs.

Retention of the current workforce is another major issue for many states. National teacher survey data points to several leading reasons: inadequate preparation for the job, lack of support like mentoring, professional development and collaboration, and dissatisfaction with compensation. Teachers’ responsibilities increased significantly in the last two decades, but support has not kept pace. Teachers are now responsible for educating a more diverse group of students, who bring many different needs to the classroom, including mental and emotional health. And they must do this under expectations that they increase student growth at much higher rates.

School leaders and policymakers face two very important demands at the same time: We need better teachers. And we need a lot more of them now.

Short-Term Solutions are Creating Long-Term Problems

Many leaders are answering this question with short-term solutions: emergency certifications to allow teachers to begin filling empty classrooms before they’ve completed their training; incentives for retired teachers to return; larger class sizes; concessions in requirements for non-traditional preparation routes; incremental pay raises to appease the growing unrest in the teacher workforce.

Is it working? Well, sort of. Some schools and districts can fill their teacher openings. But is the quality of instruction improving? The latest data says no. As of 2018, one in seven teachers in the South are unprepared or inexperienced. Trend data shows this will get worse before it gets better.

Teacher Experience, Certification, Retention

In the South, 24% of the teacher workforce is inexperienced, unprepared or planning to leave within the next five years. The table shows these percentages for states in the SREB region.

Inexperienced: Teachers with one or two years of experience.

Uncertified: Teachers practicing under an emergency or provisional certificate.

Plan to leave the profession: Teachers planning to leave teaching as soon as possible or as soon as a more desirable job opportunity arises.

Sources: Learning Policy Institute (2018). Understanding Teacher Shortages: 2018 Update. Primary data from the National Center for Education Statistics Civil Rights Data Collection, Public-Use Data File 2015-16. Planning to leave the profession primary data from the National Center for Education Statistics Public School Teacher File 2016, National Teacher and Principal Survey.

Think about it this way — would you want your child to be taught by a brand-new teacher who has not completed the basic training for the job year over year? Children taught by a highly effective teacher for three years in a row average 50 percentile points of growth. A teacher who isn’t at least minimally effective at their job can actually cause students’ achievement to decline.

See the Bigger Picture for More — and More Effective — Teachers

State leaders now need to look for long-term solutions to the teacher shortage crisis — increasing the quantity and quality of our teacher workforce, year over year. But we will find long-term solutions only through careful analysis of the problem and its causes.

Analyzing the reasons for the teacher shortage is not easy. A complex web of policies and their effects are at play. You’ve heard some: inadequate pay, school budget cuts, declining respect for the profession. We can’t address these in isolation. For example, states that are focused on the important strategies of increasing pay and restoring education budgets are not seeing the increases in the quantity and quality of their educator workforce. Why? Because these strategies are not coupled with investments in key elements for any profession — quality training, career advancement and customized professional growth.

We have to look deeper into the forest. We have to think about how the trees are planted and cultivated — to really see the needs of individual teachers, who are some of the most important people in our society.

This will require leaders and educators to come together across agencies for a thorough review of all their state’s policies across the teacher career continuum — access to quality teacher preparation, teacher recruitment, certification, induction, compensation, growth, retention and advancement. All with the goal of making the profession more attractive and respected.

Four states are now undertaking these complex policy reviews, creating plans specific to each state to adjust and redesign the most deficient policies with a holistic approach. SREB is facilitating these conversations and sharing — as a resource for more states to and conduct their own broad reviews — a growing inventory of research and recommendations on each of the policy areas affecting the teacher workforce.

These states are keeping an eye on the big picture as they redesign and connect teacher workforce policies across the full teacher career continuum. They’re leading the way on a long-term strategy to solve not only today’s teacher shortage crisis but also the need for even better teachers in tomorrow’s classrooms.

Megan Boren is program specialist at the Southern Regional Education Board, currently focused on educator human capital strategies policy, implementation and technical assistance. Previously at SREB she led the readiness course initiative as well as educator effectiveness technical assistance grants and community of practice projects. A two-time graduate of Virginia Tech, she lives in Charlotte, North Carolina.

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