America’s students are going back to school this month. According to many media sources, districts won’t have nearly enough teachers to greet them. The Washington Post has warned of a “catastrophic teacher shortage.” ABC World News Tonight called it a new “growing crisis,” and Rebecca Pringle, the president of the National Education Association, called it a “five-alarm” fire. The Wall Street Journal warned of a “dog-eat-dog” scramble to hire underqualified instructors, and results from a national survey found a surge of teachers planning to quit or retire early.
For several weeks, I watched this Great American Teacher Shortage narrative bloom across the media landscape. Because of my reporting for my abundance-agenda series, I was predisposed to believe it was real. The U.S. is rife with shortages, including of infant formula and monkeypox vaccines. But I was also skeptical, because so many public-education controversies—see: the debates over remote schooling, the proper way to teach American history, and controversial laws regarding how teachers can discuss sex ed—are plastered with ideology.
When I spoke with education researchers and writers to figure out what was really going on, a more complex narrative emerged. In parts of the country, schools are struggling to hire staff. But they are mostly the same districts that have been struggling for years to fill the same positions, such as substitute and special-ed roles. In the big picture, the new and catastrophic national teacher shortage is neither newly catastrophic nor, in any meaningful sense, national. Under one interpretation of the murky data, the country might even have a teacher surplus on its hands, because so many parents have pulled their children out of public schools since the pandemic began.
American teachers and American schools absolutely do have real problems that deserve our attention.
Teacher vacancies exist, and they are concentrated in specific states, districts, and positions. Many rural areas and the Deep South are experiencing shortages. Some high-poverty districts have struggled for decades to hire enough teachers. High teacher turnover is especially a problem in child care and special education. A recent study in Louisiana found that one-third of the state’s child-care centers lose more than half of their teachers every year. A 2022 government survey found that the vacancy rate for special-ed teachers is more than four times higher than that for physical-education instructors.
Exhausted, underpaid, and stressed out, America’s teachers seem to be in a state of psychological and financial crisis. By some estimates, public-school teachers are the most “burned out” workers in America. The pandemic made things worse; some surveys show a big increase in the share of teachers who say they want to quit. Indeed, managing an elementary-school classroom via Zoom five days a week sounds to me like one of the lower rings of hell.
So, if the question is whether some districts are struggling to hire enough teachers, or whether some specific occupations have shortages, or even whether many teachers are feeling crummy about their work, the answer is clearly yes. These things are all happening. But most of these things have been happening for a long time.
“There has not been a mass exodus of teachers across the country,” Heather Schwartz, a senior policy researcher at the Rand Corporation, told me. Chad Aldeman, who writes about education finance at Edunomics Lab, agrees. “The public narrative has gotten way ahead of the data and is even misleading in most cases,” he told me.
The single most consistent message I heard from people I spoke with for this article: America’s national teacher shortage is dubious, but America’s education-data shortage is dire. “To date, there is little firm evidence to support claims of an unprecedented crisis,” Matt Barnum wrote on the education-news site Chalkbeat.
Comprehensive national data on teacher-turnover rates (the share of teachers who quit each year) and national-vacancy rates (the share of open teacher positions that aren’t filled) are simply not available, or don’t go back far enough to tell us whether this year is different. For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks employment in the category of “local government education.” But researchers told me that this category blends teachers, school administrators, cafeteria workers, and bus drivers, among other occupations.
More than a year ago, Matthew Kraft, an associate professor of education at Brown University, started to collect data for a paper on the education labor market during COVID-19. It was meant to be a review of the dreaded teacher shortage that so many educators had warned about. But the more Kraft read, the more he realized that he couldn’t make any definitive conclusions. “We had to walk back the entire first version of the paper because of the weakness of the existing data,” he told me.
The data that we have don’t suggest anything approaching a “catastrophic” shortage. Data obtained by Barnum from five states and 19 large U.S. school districts, including in New York City and Houston, show that teacher-turnover rates haven’t actually increased despite more teachers threatening to quit. As for those polls of teachers who say they plan to quit en masse? Researchers told me that for every three teachers telling pollsters that they plan to quit in the next year, only one actually leaves their job. Teacher burnout might become a mental-health crisis in the near future, but to conflate it with an acute teacher shortage right now is neither accurate nor helpful.
“I think we’ve actually gained classroom teachers in the last year, because of new hiring after the federal stimulus bills,” said Aldeman, the education-finance writer. Federal pandemic funds have given schools tens of billions of dollars to hire additional staff, including classroom instructors, teaching assistants, and bus drivers. For example, New Mexico has directed $37 million of its federal relief money to hire 500 educational assistants, as Education Week reported. When those positions go unfilled, they’re counted as additional vacancies. “There might be a shortage in the sense that a lot of new positions are going unfilled,” Schwartz told me. But is it useful to use the term shortage when, compared with staff numbers before the pandemic, more teachers might be employed in America’s public schools right now than in 2019?
In fact, the clearest nationwide story isn’t a sharp drop in the number of public-school teachers. It’s a sharp drop in public-school student enrollment.
Across the country, certain states—including Iowa and Texas—are hiring more teachers even as their enrollment numbers decline. “It’s super weird to be having a national conversation around teacher shortages while schools are adding teachers and losing students,” Aldeman tweeted last week. He pointed me to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, which project that the number of public-school students will decline every year for the rest of the decade. NCES anticipates that by 2030, fewer kindergartners will be enrolled in public school than in any year since 1998.
Enrollment has plummeted so quickly in some school districts that it’s thrown school funding into chaos. Washington State’s Issaquah School District, just outside Seattle, faces a nearly $40 million shortfall this year, as thousands of students have left the district since the pandemic’s start. In New York City, K–12 enrollment dropped nearly 10 percent since COVID, and officials are expecting 30,000 fewer students this fall than last. The reasons are diverse: Some parents are frustrated by curricula that they see as too political; some parents don’t like the school-lottery system; and others have simply decided that tutors and homeschooling are better options.
“I’m not confident about the education data, but I think we’ll eventually discover that public-school enrollment declined in the 2022–2023 school year even as districts hired more teachers than they had before the pandemic,” Aldeman told me. “If the student ratio goes down, it’ll be very hard to call that situation a ‘teacher shortage.’”
With so many reasons to doubt the narrative of a national teacher shortage, why are news organizations running with this story?
One cynical answer is that news media carry a negativity-bias hammer and tend to see the world as a bunch of negative-news nails. When you’re facing a murky narrative with conflicting data, communicating the message “This is a total catastrophe!” is easier than “Well, this is confusing, and a lot of things seem to be happening at once.”
An even more cynical answer is that most ideologues have something to gain from the teacher-shortage narrative. Conservatives might thrill to a story about struggling school districts that have gone all “woke” on their students. Liberals would like more sympathy for public employees who share their political goals. And COVID-policy critics can point to public-school crises as evidence that the U.S. education system bungled its remote-school policy for children who faced little threat from COVID. (I tend to agree with that opinion.) The inclination to politicize a national education story might be especially strong given the renewed attention from both parties on school politics—Florida’s sex-ed law, debates about learning loss, and the proper way to teach American history. The teacher-shortage catastrophe simply proved “too good to check.”
A more generous explanation is that the teacher-staffing story is pretty damn confusing. In some districts, there are too many students for the staff. In other districts, there aren’t enough students for the budget. One district might be struggling to find English teachers, while another district might only be struggling to find substitute ESL teachers. Thinking about these as equivalent phenomena is nonsensical. But many news reports might be doing just that, in part because the government doesn’t provide any clear historical record on total teacher vacancies. Oversimple narratives can surge in a vacuum of clear information.