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By Jenna Somers
News headlines often give the impression of teacher shortages as national and state level crises, but if policymakers want to ensure classrooms are adequately staffed, they need to examine and address labor market conditions more locally, all the way down to the school level. That’s according to a new working paper by Christopher Candelaria, assistant professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt Peabody College of education and human development, and his colleagues Danielle Edwards and Matthew Kraft at Brown University and Alvin Christian at the University of Michigan.
“We often hear competing narratives about the existence and severity of teacher shortages. One of our goals with this study was to reconcile these views by answering the question, can you have both a surplus of teachers and a teacher shortage; must they be opposed to each other?” Candelaria said. “It turns out you can, but it depends on at which level or locality you are examining the shortage. You need to think about shortages that occur at specific schools and in specific subjects and what’s causing them.”
Candelaria and his colleagues analyzed data gathered from the 2019-2020 Tennessee Educator Survey (before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic)—administered to all Tennessee educators annually by the Tennessee Education Research Alliance and the Tennessee Department of Education— to understand and predict teacher shortages at the state, regional, district, and school levels. They found that only two percent of Tennessee teaching positions were vacant at the beginning of the 2019-2020 school year, but they were concentrated in a quarter of Tennessee schools distributed across the state. Of these vacancies, 73 percent occurred in secondary schools. Half the schools reporting vacancies had only one unfilled position, and just six percent of schools with vacancies had more than two unfilled positions.
The researchers found that teacher staffing challenges are highly localized, allowing shortages and surpluses to coexist between schools and subjects within districts, and that schools’ historical attrition rates are especially predictive of teacher vacancies. Other school- and district-level factors including fewer teacher graduates who participated in teacher preparation programs near the school, fewer early-career teachers who grew up within 25 miles of the school, modest rates of salary increase, and poor working conditions also played a role.
Districts also experience teacher staffing challenges by subject area. Two-thirds of Tennessee districts reported difficulty recruiting enough math, science, foreign language, and special education teachers compared to one-fifth of districts with difficulty recruiting enough elementary and social studies teachers.
The researchers conclude that focusing on aggregate descriptions of shortages conceals variation in the types of vacancies within districts and the reasons for them, and that developing effective solutions to teacher shortages depends on addressing problems at the local level. They suggest that schools may need to focus on improving working conditions and districts may need to increase pay for early-career teachers and frontload salary schedules. Additionally, expanding federal reporting requirements on teacher labor markets and shortages would provide access to more localized data. Only eight states currently report teacher shortage data by county, district, or geographic area.
“Tennessee should be seen as a case study that could be applied to other states,” Candelaria said. “In each state, we need to delve a little deeper to understand where the variation in teacher shortages is being driven, so that we can design policies to alleviate some of them. When we think about a framework, like this study, that allows us to identify where shortages are, then we can start having meaningful policy conversations.”
Candelaria and his colleagues see this paper as a framework for examining teacher shortages in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic as preliminary results from 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 Tennessee Educator Surveys suggest that patterns of geographic and grade-level variation in teacher shortages remain; however, the percentage of schools reporting vacancies increased by approximately one-third. Given these early findings, the researchers argue that teacher shortages and surpluses likely coexist following the pandemic.