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NPR Education correspondent Cory Turner reports on the struggle to recruit and retain teachers and the innovative ways school districts are finding to train, hire and recruit new teachers.

6 things to know about U.S. teacher shortages and how to solve them

First-grade teacher Kimberly Pate is 52 and worked for nearly two decades as a classroom assistant. She is a student in the Mississippi Teacher Residency where she'll get a master's degree plus dual certification in elementary and special education, all for free.
Imani Khayyam for NPR
First-grade teacher Kimberly Pate is 52 and worked for nearly two decades as a classroom assistant. She is a student in the Mississippi Teacher Residency where she'll get a master's degree plus dual certification in elementary and special education, all for free.

As of October 2022, after the school year had already begun, 45% of U.S. public schools had at least one teacher vacancy. That's according to limited federal data.

For several months, NPR has been exploring the forces at work behind these local teacher shortages. Interviews with more than 70 experts and educators across the country, including teachers both aspiring and retiring, offer several explanations. Here's what to know:

There are more teachers now than before the pandemic – but certain kinds of teachers are still in short supply.

Nationally, "we have more teachers on a numeric basis than we did before the pandemic, and we have fewer students" due to enrollment drops, says Chad Aldeman, a researcher who studies teacher shortages.

But according to a deep-dive into the available data, "The biggest issue districts face in staffing schools with qualified teachers is... a chronic and perpetual misalignment of teacher supply and demand."

Qualified special education, science and math teachers are among the hardest to find, according to federal data.

High-poverty and high-minority school districts are often hit harder by teacher shortages.

Schools that serve high-poverty neighborhoods and/or a "high-minority student body" were more likely to have reported vacancies in October 2022, federal data show.

Many districts "have dozens of teachers applying for the same positions," education researcher Tuan Nguyen explains. "But in a nearby district that is more economically-disadvantaged or has a higher proportion of minority students, they have difficulty attracting teachers."

It turns out, shortages are a lot like school districts themselves. They often begin and end at arbitrary lines that have more to do with privilege and zip code than the needs of children.

Teacher pay has stagnated, while the cost of a four-year degree has nearly doubled.

According to federal data, teachers in the U.S. earned an average of $66,397 in 2021-22. But that number hides enormous variation in school funding and teacher pay from state to state. (The average salary in Connecticut is $81,185, while the average in Mississippi is just $47,162.)

At the same time, most school districts still require at least four years of college to be a teacher. And while federal data show inflation-adjusted teacher pay has been stagnant since 1990, the inflation-adjusted cost of college has nearly doubled, from about $15,000 a year in 1990 to $29,000 in 2020.

For nearly a decade, fewer people have been going to school to become teachers.

The rising cost of college is forcing an uncomfortable cost-benefit analysis on aspiring teachers. Ominously, between 2010 and 2018, enrollment in traditional teacher preparation programs dropped by roughly a third.

One important caveat to that decline, and an early sign of good news, is that since 2018 "the data suggest that [enrollment numbers] are getting better, not worse," says Aldeman.

There's been a decline in Americans' esteem for teaching.

Perceptions of teacher prestige have fallen in the last decade. Those are the findings of the aptly-titled paper "The Rise and Fall of the Teaching Profession," written by two education policy researchers. Among the researchers' findings:

  • Interest in teaching has fallen among high school seniors and college freshmen to the lowest level in the last 50 years.
  • "Teachers' job satisfaction is also at the lowest level in five decades," the authors write.
  • These drops aren't simply the result of pandemic stress. "Most of these declines occurred steadily throughout the last decade suggesting they are a function of larger, long-standing structural issues with the profession," the authors say. "In our view, these findings should be cause for serious national concern." 
  • There's a lot states and school districts can do to better support teachers, and invest in the next generation.

    Schools can offer big hiring bonuses for teachers in hard-to-staff subject areas, like special education and math. They can also provide support through mentorship programs that pair new teachers with veteran educators.

    There's also a national movement around Grow Your Own (GYO) programs, in which teacher candidates are cultivated from the local community. The hope is a community member will be more personally invested in the school system, and more likely to stick around. Drawing teachers from the community also makes it easier for students to see themselves and their life experiences reflected in their teachers.

    Schools in Jackson, Miss., have partnered with the Mississippi Department of Education to provide candidates with a no-cost master's degree and dual certification in elementary and special education. In return, the new teachers promise to stay and teach in Jackson for three years.

    "It's really a no-cost pathway. It is a Cadillac package," says Courtney Van Cleve, who heads teacher talent acquisition for the Mississippi Department of Education.

    According to New America, at least 35 states have some sort of GYO policy on the books and/or fund a GYO program.

    The challenge is these programs cost money, and in many places, that money won't come — or keep coming — unless lawmakers on both sides of the aisle understand the urgency of the teacher shortage problem.

    Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.
    Nicole Cohen is an education editor at NPR. Prior to joining the Education Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Arts Desk, where she produced and edited arts features and interviews for NPR.org. She was part of the team that created NPR's annual Book Concierge, a collection of the year's best books as chosen by NPR staff and critics. Her other arts features include This Is Color and the podcast recommendation site Earbud.fm. She also coordinated the Web presence for Fresh Air.
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