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Combatting America’s Teacher Shortage

By Mark Wolf  |  August 3, 2022

Michelle Exstrom had a survey question for those attending an education session at NCSL’s Legislative Summit on Tuesday.

“Stand up if your state has a teacher shortage,” she encouraged. Mass standing ensued.

Exstrom, director of NCSL’s Education Program, was moderating the session “The Educator Exodus.” She got the same unanimous response when she asked about principal shortages. Then she asked, “Raise your hands if it’s gotten worse since the pandemic.” More unanimity.

The Washington Post reported Wednesday that the U.S. faces a “catastrophic” teacher shortage.

An Old Problem Made Worse

“Educator shortages aren’t new, but the pandemic has certainly exacerbated existing challenges. Despite headlines arguing about whether shortages truly exist and whether turnover will be as drastic as predicted, teachers and school leaders are reporting higher level of stress and burnout and intentions to leave the profession than ever before,” Molly Gold, a senior policy specialist at NCSL, said. “Enrollment and completion rates in education preparation programs continue to fall.”

To truly understand the ongoing educator exodus, we need to know both what is happening in schools that leads to greater turnover and what’s happening that leads to greater retention

The headline is that principals and teachers reported worse well-being than other working adults. —Elizabeth Steiner, the Rand Corp.

Elizabeth Steiner, a policy researcher at the Rand Corp., presented highlights of the think tank’s 2022 State of the American Teacher and the American Principal surveys, which were conducted in January.

“The headline is that principals and teachers reported worse well-being than other working adults,” Steiner said. “We looked at five indicators of well-being: frequent job-related stress, burnout, depression, not coping well with stress, and feelings of resilience to stressful events.“

The results were similar to those from the 2021 survey.

“We also found well-being especially poor among Hispanic teachers, mid-career teachers and female teachers and principals,” Steiner said. “We looked at the relationships between these five indicators and they are about what you would expect.”

Principals and teachers who related frequent job-related stress were also more likely to report feelings of depression, feeling burned out and not coping well with their job-related stress, she said.

Working Conditions Matter

The researchers also asked about experiences of racial discrimination at school. Thirty-six percent of teachers and 48% of principals who identified as persons of color experienced at least one instance of racial discrimination at their school.

Thirty-seven percent of teachers and 61% of principals reported experiencing at least one incident of harassment related to school COVID policies.

Pay is an important policy lever for teacher retention, and low pay is a factor in teachers’ decisions to leave their jobs.

“Salaries make a big difference,” said Barnett Berry, a professor at the University of South Carolina, where he is the founding director of Accelerating for Learning and Leadership for South Carolina. “You can’t recruit and retain a professional workforce without professional salaries, but they are wholly insufficient. It is about the system.”

Over time, Berry said, teachers working in schools with higher-quality professional environments get better and more effective at their jobs. Two factors in school working environments matter most, he said: that teachers have opportunities to work with and learn from each other, and that policies support positive student conduct, which means getting to know students better.

“Those two conditions make a big difference on whether or not teachers are effective and whether or not they stay,” Berry said. “We have to work on conditions.”

Mark Wolf is a senior editor in NCSL’s Communications Division.

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