There’s been a lot of ink spilled over what’s been framed as a national shortage of teachers, including fears of a coronavirus-related mass exodus from classrooms that have never quite materialized.
Fewer words have been spent on defining what, precisely, is meant when people say the education system is facing a drought of teachers from coast to coast.
That’s what researchers at Kansas State University set out to quantify when they began crunching the numbers on teacher vacancies for all 50 states. A problem that became apparent early on was that there simply was no central source for the information they were seeking — even at the state level.
Researchers painstakingly pieced together data from a swath of government sources and news reports, cataloging more recent data from the 2021-22 school year for some states but having to reach as far back as 2014-15 for others. For 13 states, their search yielded no data about teacher vacancies.
At what point, exactly, does the ratio of teacher vacancies to students signal a shortage? Tuan D. Nguyen, an assistant professor at Kansas State University’s College of Education, says there’s no consensus about when the rate of vacancies tips into a crisis.
“That’s one of the things that I think that we — this includes researchers and policy makers and the public — have to decide,” Nguyen says. “At what level do we think it is an issue? You have to take into account the student-teacher ratio, the number of vacant positions, the number of under-qualified [teachers].”
Nguyen and his colleagues found the state that topped the list with the highest vacancies-to-students ratio was Mississippi, which had a sizable lead over the next state in the ranking, Alabama.
Mississippi had roughly 69 teacher vacancies for every 10,000 students in the state, according to the most recent data from the 2022 Kansas State University study. Put another way, that’s 10 vacancies for every 100 teachers.
Alabama, by comparison, has about 41 vacancies per 10,000 students, or about seven vacancies per 100 teachers in the state.
Looking purely at raw numbers, states in the southeastern part of the US appeared to have the highest concentration of teacher vacancies. But when researchers evened the playing field by taking student and teacher populations into account, that concentration vanished.
While Mississippi and Alabama still held the highest rate of vacancies, West Virginia, Maine and New Mexico emerged to round out the top five states with the highest vacancy-to-student ratio.
Nguyen and his colleagues found approximately 36,500 teacher vacancies across the country — which they believe is likely an undercount — but that’s not to say that those missing hires are evenly distributed. In fact, he says, it’s a mistake to frame any question of a teacher shortage at the national level.
“It’s nearly impossible to answer that because we don’t have a national teacher labor market,” Nguyen explained. “A teacher in California can’t just go to teach in Louisiana, and we have to think about this as potentially 50 different teacher labor markets, and that’s just at the state level.”
Diving deeper into any state would reveal a teacher shortage of problems in specific types of school districts, Nguyen says, rather than all of them. Those who are likely to be both rural and urban districts, those that are under-resourced and those with a high number of minority students, he adds.
“The data coming out really indicates that this is a highly localized and contextualized problem,” Nguyen says.
When it comes to solutions, Nguyen says, those must be tailored to at a local level, too. Some states are suffering from a slowdown of people entering teacher prep programs, while others are seeing high rates of teachers quitting or retiring.
For example, Nguyen posits, a possible solution for an area experiencing high teacher turnover might be a retention bonus for teachers who have stayed in the classroom for at least two years.
“We shouldn’t try to apply very broad solutions because these problems are not uniform across space and context,” Nguyen says.