On the Ed Beat: Is your school experiencing a teacher shortage?

The lowdown: Reasons for a teacher shortage

Have you noticed that some of your teachers didn’t come back to school this year? Some turnover is normal, but some school districts across the country are struggling to recruit teachers. National data says there are fewer teachers compared to previous years, despite the fact that the student-teacher ratio has remained about the same.

In his story “Districts Facing Teacher Shortages Look for Lifelines,” Education Week reporter and editor Ross Brenneman explores the factors that have caused regional teacher shortages and what districts are doing to solve the problem.

Teacher shortages could be caused by a school district trying to expand to meet population growth or because teachers are leaving the district.

“If a school keeps all of its teachers every year, it usually won’t need to find new ones,” he said. “So if there are shortages because a lot of teachers leave, it might indicate that there are undesirable working conditions in your school or district.”

Teachers factor in conditions like salary and benefits, how many classes they have to teach, the school culture, parental involvement, school and district leadership and even the students themselves, he said. (For more about the role of working conditions for teachers, check out this Education Week blog post.)

Subject areas like science, math, special education and bilingual education tend to have a higher turnover rate and more vacancies year to year, Brenneman said.

Some effects of a teacher shortage are increased class sizes, more long-term substitute teachers and fewer school-sponsored activities, he said.

When looking at the data of teachers in your school, it is also important to consider how the racial demographics of teachers matches that of students, Brenneman said.

“Generally, the teaching profession is very white (about 82 percent),” he said. “But students (of all races) need teachers of all races, to expose them to different viewpoints, as well to perhaps provide mentorship.”

Read Ross Brenneman’s story on the Education Week website.

Think about it

  • When schools become short on teachers, they sometimes assign teachers to classes outside their speciality areas. This is sometimes called ‘out of field’ teaching. Are there many ‘out of field’ teachers in your school or district? Do teachers say they feel comfortable taking on unfamiliar subjects? How might that affect students?
  • Where did most of your teachers  come from? Are they from your state or did they move from somewhere else? 
  • Do many students at your school want to study education in college with the plan of becoming a teacher?  What do you think students consider when making that decision?
  • What are the demographics of teachers in your schools? Are there race or gender discrepancies? What kind of effect do you think that has on students, if any?
  • How difficult is it to find out the information and data about teachers in your school and district? Were you surprised at the answer? 

Own the Story

How can you tell if your school or district is experiencing a teacher shortage?

A good indicator is if at least 5 percent of all teaching positions in the district are unfilled at the beginning of the year, Brenneman said.

The amount of teacher vacancies in your school is a public record for you to request. Brenneman also suggests requesting: school budgets, the number of teaching applications received annually, the salary schedule for teachers (including whether bonuses are offered for advanced degrees or special certifications), demographic information of current teachers and the number of substitute teachers hired, particularly long-term subs.

Submit your Freedom of Information Act requests to the district superintendent, he said, and remember to include a time span for the records you want. Brenneman suggests requesting at least 10 years of data, because the 2008 Great Recession had many consequences for the teaching profession.

Many state legislatures have debated the issue of teacher pay and how it relates to retention. Your state’s department of education might be able to give you more information on the legislation that has passed or is pending in your state. The National Center for Education Statistics also tracks the average teacher salary for each state.

If your district doesn’t have a teacher shortage, explore that story too.

“Was it through good leadership and teamwork, or a lack of systemic barriers to enact change?” Brenneman said. “Success can be a story too.”

Talk to teachers, local and/or state teacher union leaders, your superintendent and the district HR manager. Brenneman suggests also talking to professors of education at a university in your state to shed some light on the situation at your school. You can also contact education reporters at your local or regional newspaper — or Education Week’s teacher expert, Stephen Sawchuck.

For further reference, see the Department of Education’s report of teacher shortage areas across the country.

Tips from a pro

With a story so heavily based on data, it’s important to confirm any speculation you might have. 

“Always be fair,” Brenneman said. “Don’t write anything you can’t back up, especially with data.”

You should also know — and understand — your data before you conduct interviews, he said. 

“For sources within your district and school leadership, understand that they’re the ones who will feel pressure to account, so while you shouldn’t approach them accusatorily, also be prepared when you meet with them,” Brenneman said. 

Before you submit formal public-records requests, try talking to the communications office in your district office or ask your superintendent, Brenneman suggests. If that doesn’t work, to make the records-request process easier, use the Student Press Law Center’s Public Records Letter Generator, which can be found here.

If you still have a hard time getting information, Brenneman suggests putting pressure on the district, through attendance at board meetings or even leveraging local newspapers that might be interested in writing about the situation.

Read Ross Brenneman’s story on the Education Week website here.