Many schools across the country have started the new academic year, and one of the burning questions is whether they have enough teachers in classrooms. More than that, whether they have enough qualified teachers.
Teacher shortages have gotten worse in recent years, and the waning of the pandemic is not improving the situation. Tuan Nguyen, a Kansas State University education professor, is leading a group of researchers tracking teacher vacancies. In 2021-2022, they found 36,500 vacancies in 37 states and Washington, D.C. This year, there are more than 49,000 vacancies in those states—a 35% increase.
In some states, including Maine, Nevada, Louisiana, Kentucky, and Rhode Island, there are more than 30 teacher vacancies per 10,000 students. In Mississippi and West Virginia, there are more than 50 teacher vacancies per 10,000 students.
Predictably, vacancies fall harder in some places and on some students than others. “A nationally representative survey conducted by the Education Department last year found that 57 percent of high-poverty schools had at least one vacancy October 2022, compared with 45 percent of public schools in general,” the Post reported. “Sixty percent of schools where more than three quarters of the student body were kids of color had at least one vacancy.”
But vacancies don't tell the whole story. Many districts are filling jobs by hiring unqualified teachers. Students may be learning math from a teacher who hasn’t graduated from college, let alone gotten a masters degree in education or learned in the classroom through student teaching under the guidance of a licensed teacher. That has implications not just for the teacher’s mastery of the subject matter they’re teaching, but for their experience and ability to manage groups of kids. Teachers have skills and training that matter, and when you just throw someone without that into the classroom, students lose. It’s not impossible for someone without that training to become a great teacher, but it’s a lot less likely.
The increase in underqualified teachers is not just a liability while those teachers are in the classroom: “They tend to leave the teaching profession at a much higher rate,” Nguyen told The Washington Post. Research shows negative effects for students not just when their own teachers leave, but from teacher turnover in their schools more generally.
The numbers of underqualified teachers are dramatically higher than the numbers of teacher vacancies: more than 250 per 10,000 students in Louisiana, and more than 90 per 100,000 in Delaware, Texas, Alaska, and South Carolina.
So when you hear that your school district has reduced teacher vacancies, it’s important to ask how it did that. Did it find fully licensed and trained teachers? Or did it lower its standards? And if your district isn’t filling its vacancies, or isn’t filling them with qualified teachers, what isn’t it doing to put the best teachers in classrooms? Teachers still face a significant pay penalty relative to equivalently educated professionals. Reducing that penalty can be a way to increase hiring if politicians are willing to admit that hiring good teachers is important, and that treating them well is how you do it. But politicians are either not recognizing this crisis in education for what it is, or they’re actively making it worse as part of the broader Republican attack on public education. Wherever it’s coming from politically, leaving teacher vacancies and hiring underqualified teachers is a statement, through actions if not in words, that what teachers do isn't important enough to hire fully trained people at the level of pay that reflects their expertise. Nobody who is making that statement should ever be allowed to claim they have students’ best interests at heart.
Everyone always talks about redistricting, but what is it like to actually do it? Oregon political consultant Kari Chisholm joins us on this week’s episode of “The Downballot” to discuss his experience as a member of Portland’s new Independent District Commission, a panel of citizens tasked with creating the city’s first-ever map for its city council. Kari explains why Portland wanted to switch from at-large elections to a district-based system, how new multimember districts could boost diversity on the council, and the commission’s surprisingly effective efforts to divide the city into four equal districts while heeding community input.