The teacher shortage isn’t literally a "shortage of teachers"
Over the last couple years, there have been A LOT of stories about teacher shortages. There are some nuggets of truth1 to these stories, but they are fundamentally misleading in one big way.
Namely, public schools have more teachers than they did before the pandemic. Not only that, but, because student enrollments have been falling, more teachers means that schools have effectively reduced their student-to-teacher ratios.
This isn’t true everywhere, of course, but it’s true nationally, in 40 out of 50 states (plus D.C.), and in three-quarters of school districts. If you want to see the trend lines for your local community, check out the interactive map I worked on with The 74 Million.
I want to be careful to note that there still are shortages out there, particularly in states like Louisiana, Florida, and Alabama; in rural areas; and in subjects like math, science, and special education. But in numerical terms, we don’t have a teacher shortage problem, and in the coming years we may start seeing the effects of a teacher surplus.
Part of the confusion comes down to different definitions of the phrase “teacher shortage.” Some people might be using the term to suggest that there aren’t enough applicants for open positions, or that the applicants don’t meet their standards in some way.
But those things can be subjective. And if you define a “shortage” in the most literal way possible—do schools have fewer teachers?—then the answer is no. If district leaders are unhappy with the quality of the applicants they’re getting, hiring more people is a funny way to show it.
I’m being snarky here, but I’ve read too many stories about the number of teacher vacancies in a particular community without any context around the actual number of teachers who work in that school, district, or state.
So what’s driving the narrative about shortages? Multiple factors are playing a role. One, schools have consistently struggled to find teachers willing to work in certain schools or subjects. That was true before the pandemic, and it’s gotten worse recently. Two, there are fewer new teachers than there were 10-15 years ago. Even if recent trends are promising, the market as a whole is a lot tighter. And then three, $190 billion in federal relief funds allowed districts to super-charge their hiring efforts.
But this is mostly a vacancy issue. More job openings does not necessarily mean fewer teachers.