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Speaking of the Economy
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Speaking of the Economy
Feb. 1, 2023

The Pandemic-Era Teacher Shortage

Audience: General Public

Sierra Latham and Sarah Gunn discuss the current shortage of teachers nationally and in the Fifth Federal Reserve District, how supply-demand forces have contributed to this labor market gap, and what is happening in response. Latham is a senior research analyst and Gunn is director of economic education at the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond.



Tim Sablik: I'm Tim Sablik, a senior economics writer at the Richmond Fed. My guests today are Sierra Latham, a senior research analyst, and Sarah Gunn, director of economic education, both at the Richmond Fed.

Sierra and Sarah, welcome back to the show.

Sierra Latham: Thanks for having us.

Sarah Gunn: Thanks, Tim. Happy to be here.

Sablik: Today we're going to be talking about a nationwide shortage of teachers. You both have recently written articles on the challenges of hiring and retaining teachers. We'll put links up to those pieces in the transcript for this episode. We've recently had other guests on the show to talk about the present challenges of finding workers in general.

What does the teacher shortage look like, and how is that different from labor challenges in other industries? Sarah, maybe we can start with you.

Gunn: Sure. There are a lot of similarities between the challenges faced in the labor market in general and in education. Across the board, employers are facing challenges hiring and retaining workers.

However, for teachers, the issues are more nuanced. A teacher shortage today could impact children going forward, which could compound the issues from multiple years of primarily virtual schooling. Getting hired to become a teacher often requires a specific teaching certification and a bachelor's degree, so it isn't a field that's easy to move into. And, it's important to make sure teachers are qualified for their jobs.

Latham: While school districts have tools to cope with teacher shortages, they all do have limitations.

One strategy is to cover additional teaching needs with their current teaching staff. That can look like larger class sizes, which make classroom management more difficult and limit the amount of individual attention teachers can provide to students. Middle and high school teachers may also be asked to teach more classes than usual. While this often comes with a pay increase commensurate with the additional instructional time, it also does reduce the amount of time during the workday available for lesson prep and grading. Stretching the capacity of current teachers to cover teacher shortages puts stress on existing teachers and could lead to burnout.

Another approach is to augment the existing teaching staff with long-term substitute teachers. Long-term subs are necessarily versatile in what subjects they can teach and are skilled at classroom management. However, they often lack the subject matter expertise of a dedicated teacher. For that reason, they rely on the rest of the teaching team for lesson planning and course material. This can contribute to the workload of the rest of the teaching team as well, which is a drawback.

Sablik: Sure, and we'll be digging into some of those solutions throughout the show. First, I wanted to get a better sense of what teacher vacancies look like across our District.

Latham: I can take that one.

For starters, it can be difficult to say what vacancies look like due to data availability limitations. I learned pretty quickly that no two states within the Fifth District report vacancy data the same way or on the same schedule. With some sleuthing and generous responses from a few state education departments, we were able to get vacancy data for Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and the District of Columbia. Unfortunately, we weren't able to get vacancy data for West Virginia.

When states report vacancy rates determines how big of a problem they are. For instance, we expect to see vacancies in June when school districts are in the process of hiring teachers for the coming school year. Some school districts also report vacancy rates after the school year starts, which indicate a bigger problem. A teaching vacancy in October indicates that the school district was unable to fill a vacancy prior to the beginning of the school year and that they are using alternative approaches to provide instruction for the classes without a teacher.

In our research for the District Digest article, we learned that Maryland has lower vacancy rates than other Fifth District jurisdictions for which we had data. There are higher vacancy rates in rural school districts than urban school districts in Maryland, North Carolina and South Carolina, whereas Virginia urban school districts reported higher vacancy rates than rural school districts.

Gunn: Sierra mentioned earlier that school districts might have to fill vacancies with long-term subs or others that aren't highly qualified for the role. So, at this point in the school year, you can use those numbers as an indicator of the positions that they weren't able to fill.

In West Virginia, there were 1,500 classrooms with a non-certified teacher this school year. That number has more than doubled in the last seven years.

I did a check of vacancies in my children's school district in Virginia. There are currently over 30 certified teaching positions available for the current school year. Some of them were more recently posted, which perhaps indicates that teachers left during the school year. But some of the postings have been up since the summer. When I checked, the numbers look similar for other large suburban school districts and other states in our District.

Sablik: Yeah, thanks for that overview.

As you both mentioned, obviously the pandemic has had a massive effect on schools. Do we have a sense from the data about how the pandemic has impacted teacher turnover?

Latham: Sure. Survey research has found that more teachers are considering leaving the profession as a result of the pandemic compared to earlier rates. Burnout and stress caused by staffing shortages are two commonly stated reasons why teachers may leave the profession or retire earlier than originally planned.

Research has also found that health concerns and stress associated with switching instruction modes during the pandemic added to feelings of burnout. In addition, students missed out on social development opportunities when schools switched to online learning. The transition back to in-person learning has been a challenge for some students struggling with mental health and behavioral concerns. In turn, teachers are responsible for identifying and supporting students with increasingly complex needs and maintaining classroom management as students expressed greater levels of disruptive behavior. For this reason, the teaching environment is more stressful than before the pandemic, which will also contribute to burnout.

Gunn: At the same time that teachers are leaving the profession or retiring early at a faster pace, enrollment in teacher preparation programs has been decreasing. That's led to a gap between the number of people leaving the profession and the number of people entering the profession. That [gap] appears to be widening.

In Virginia, heading into this school year, 3,000 more teachers left the workforce than were hired with first-time teacher licenses. This gap exists to varying degrees in the other states in our region.

Sablik: Digging into that gap a little bit more, what are some of the main bottlenecks in the pipeline for training new teachers?

Latham: Looking at the data between 2012 and 2020, enrollment and teacher credential programs declined by 16 percent across the Fifth District. Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia saw statewide declines in enrollments, which were not fully offset by increases in enrollments in South Carolina and the District of Columbia.

Gunn: One of the primary bottlenecks is the cost of a bachelor's degree and teacher licensure tests. One of the things preventing the shortage from being worse is the use of alternative certificates. These programs allow for candidates to get their teaching license outside of the traditional bachelor's degree path. These vary a lot from state to state, but they often allow people with a bachelor's degree in something else to earn a teaching credential in less time, or for candidates to begin serving as a classroom teacher while earning the credential.

It's also important to note that some of the same things causing teachers to leave the profession early will prevent people from pursuing a career in education. We are expecting teachers to play a huge role in preparing students for the future, and they face more scrutiny on the curriculum they teach and concerns about school safety. Those issues are rightly weighing on students making decisions about what to do in the future.

Sablik: One of the topics that came up in our earlier episode on the labor market is the availability of other options in a historically tight labor market. Sierra, you've dug into the pay gap between teachers and other occupations. What did you find there?

Latham: In short, the teacher pay gap exists across all Fifth District states and the District of Columbia, in both urban and rural areas. Throughout the Fifth District, teachers are paid about 31 percent less than non-teachers. If we look just at rural communities, that gap does narrow to around 22 percent.

We also see a lot of variation in teacher wages across the Fifth District. Wages tend to be greatest in the D.C. metro area and the state of Maryland. Communities with relatively low teacher wages are scattered across urban and rural communities throughout the Fifth District.

What's really interesting is looking at what teacher wages look like after accounting for variation in cost of living. This gets more teachers purchasing power given local prices. After doing this, we see that those high teacher salaries in the D.C. metro area and Maryland don't necessarily go as far. On the flip side, there are some rural communities in West Virginia, North Carolina and western Virginia where a teacher would live more comfortably than their nominal rage rate would suggest.

Sablik: What are some ways that states and localities in our District are trying to address these teacher vacancies?

Latham: One thing that school districts are doing is attempting to prevent vacancies in the first place by keeping teachers from leaving. Many school districts have offered teachers one-time retention bonuses to acknowledge how challenging the transition back to in-person schooling has been, and to express appreciation for teachers continued flexibility in an evolving learning environment. While some school districts were able to afford bonuses with on-source funding, many used resources from the American Rescue Plan's elementary and secondary school emergency relief funds.

Gunn: A number of states and school districts also increased teacher pay overall. However, with the rising cost of living, those teachers' real wages likely decreased still.

Building the pipeline of new teachers is going to require addressing the barriers we talked about earlier. There are a few programs that allow student loan forgiveness for teachers with federal student loans, such as the [U.S. Department of Education's] Teacher Loan Forgiveness Program and Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. There are other state or local programs to help reduce the cost of an education for those planning to become teachers, too.

In addition, a number of states have or are considering expanding the alternative pathways to becoming a teacher. However, there are concerns about whether those new teachers would be as qualified as those with more traditional training.

And, as vacancies are so widespread, school districts are often competing against each other for talent. That often leaves under-resourced schools or school districts, including rural and inner-city schools, at a disadvantage. Unfortunately, I think this is an issue that's not going away anytime soon.

Sablik: In addition to studying these issues as researchers, the Richmond Fed also creates resources for teachers to use in the classroom. Sarah, could you talk a bit about what your team is working on in that space now?

Gunn: Sure. The Economic Education team at the Richmond Fed offers a variety of programs to help people understand the role of the Federal Reserve, and help students evaluate the costs and benefits of their postsecondary options. Check out the Education section of our website for more information and for our upcoming programs, which includes a visit to the Maggie Walker National Historic Site in April.

Sablik: For folks interested in learning more about Maggie Walker, we're actually going to be doing an episode on her coming up this month.

Sierra and Sarah, thanks so much for joining me today to talk about the teacher shortage.

Latham: Thanks, it's been a pleasure.

Gunn: Thanks so much for having us.

Sablik: As always, I'll remind listeners interested in keeping up with new research on this topic or others to check out our website, You can also visit the show page for a transcript and links to any of the studies that we mentioned here. And if you enjoyed this episode, please consider leaving us a rating and review.