Are teacher shortages the actual problem?

As a young teacher in the urban core of Kansas City, I was passionate about giving each of my students the opportunities they deserved by being a high quality teacher. Although I was both traditionally trained and a Teach for America corps member, I faced a steep learning curve my first year in my classroom. Through the investment of peers, veteran teachers, and my own learning pursuits, I somehow made it through that first year. But as the next couple of years passed, it was clear one major piece was missing: coaching and development. Despite my own pursuits, I desperately needed an outside perspective that could give me tangible action steps and solutions. As I watched other new teachers around me, trajectories varied. Some stayed a couple of years and then left. Others quit after a semester, leaving a class of eager learners to be met with a revolving door of substitutes.

Herein lies a major issue facing the world of education today: teacher shortages. Many theories exist as to why (or even if) this is occurring. But before we can even begin to suggest solutions, it is critical that we follow Einstein’s mindset: “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” Throwing solutions at the problem without truly understanding it will result in zero progress.

So let’s ask the question. Are teacher shortages the actual problem?  To begin, let’s disaggregate the data to gain clarification. A 1998 study by the National Association of State Boards of Education and again in 2003, found that if we merely took the numbers of teachers being prepared each year, every vacancy could be filled. The problem actually lies in the distribution of teachers. Well-qualified teachers are less likely to be willing to teach in urban and rural schools, especially those serving students of color or low-income students. The shortage is also exacerbated by region, and subject area (STEM fields, special education, and bilingual education to name a few).

Fast forward 18 years, and the story hasn’t changed. In a white paper by the Center for Public Education in 2016, they outlined the same issues. So is there a shortage? The net effect seems to suggest that if you argue merely numbers, no. But if you look below the surface, you will see that, like many issues that face our country, it disproportionately and dramatically affects certain groups. Not surprisingly one of the most affected areas is within urban schools, which disproportionately affects students of color and low income students.  That doesn’t even begin to account for compounding factors such as students of color being overrepresented in special education.

Teachers in these settings not only operate in short-staffed settings, but they have little power to affect the necessary changes. I made the choice to pursue school leadership to increase my influence over the challenges facing our students in Kansas City. Now, as an assistant principal helping lead a school and city full of brilliant and talented scholars, I do not have the time to wait for this long-existing shortage to be solved at a national or policy level. We cannot wait. Our students, who have been and continue to be underserved, cannot wait. So what can we do?

First and foremost, the goal currently is not having a plethora of applicants, but rather finding and retaining the right teachers. If we hire great teachers, but do not create the environment to retain them, we will continue to fight a losing battle. TNTP’s Irreplaceables study provides valuable insight. Irreplaceable educators are those that consistently achieve strong results with students, in this case an average of 1.6 years of growth in 1 year! Schools too often operate with negligent retention–making no more efforts to retain high quality teachers than low quality teachers.

Additionally, the study suggests that some of the most effective strategies to retain these irreplaceable teachers up to 6 years longer have little or no cost. The types of strategies? Providing both positive and critical feedback, identifying areas of development, recognizing accomplishments publicly, and putting the teacher in charge of something important. By practicing smart retention, it’s possible not only to retain more of the teachers that are hard to find, especially in urban contexts, but also to change the ratio of more effective to less effective teachers as measured by student results.

“We can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” -Einstein.

Time to ask some different questions. The principal of Ranson IB in Charlotte NC, Erica Jordan-Thomas, is doing just that. In her TEDx Charlotte talk, she discusses the idea of “Beyoncé educators”, or rather individuals who achieve mind blowing academic results with students year after year. She has flipped a critical question, “Rather than asking the question, how can we place a Beyoncé educator in every single classroom… How can we rethink our venues and place every single child in front of a Beyoncé educator?” One way Ranson IB has done this is through Multi Classroom Leaders, who lead small groups of teacher teams. This leader creates lesson plans for that team, coaches each of the teachers on the team, and teaches small groups of students who need the most support based on data. As a result, the master educator impacts the instruction every student on that team receives in a way that could not have happened in a traditional classroom.

This is an invaluable approach as time is of the essence for our students, and teacher shortages appear to be a part of larger systemic issues that are not going away any time soon.  As leaders of schools, how can we creatively reimagine structures to ensure that every student in our building is impacted by one of our Irreplaceable teachers, rather than fighting the nearly impossible battle of hiring a truly Irreplaceable educator for every classroom?

As school leaders, our responsibility is to act, and to act now. Our future, the brilliant, talented, resilient, and driven students of color in my school, city, and around our country deserve more. Let’s start with developing and retaining high quality teachers, and reimagining how to put every student in front of an Irreplaceable.


Karis’ post is part of a roundtable blogging discussion sharing educators’ stories on our nation’s teacher shortage. We want to hear your thoughts! Join the conversation by commenting on and sharing this blog and by reading the other blogs in this series. Follow CTQ on Facebook and Twitter to see when each new blog is posted and use #CTQCollab to join the discussion on social media.

  • Barnett Berry

    Karis. Thanks for your teaching and leadership as well as insights into the teacher shortages nationwide (which beset rural schools as much or more than even urban ones). You point to the fact that our shortages have as much to do about our schools’ inability to retain teachers than to recruit them. (Check out the research of LPI at https://learningpolicyinstitute.org/product/understanding-teacher-shortages-interactive — our partner on this blogging Roundtable.)

    As Richard Ingersoll has noted, the source of teacher attrition has a lot to do with poor working conditions — and very specific ones — like lack of teacher agency and autonomy. At CTQ we have studied this issue in depth — and had a TeacherSolutions Team back in 2010 unpack what those specific conditions might be.

    In our 2010, report members of the CTQCollab, drawing on the available research evidence, pointed to several conditions for school improvement and teacher retention— including the development of professional networks within and across schools to support teaching and learning, leadership development for all teachers, and the investment and alignment of community resources to develop and support effective schools. More recently, we have further developed the ideas, using new research and evidence on the conditions that spur collective leadership for school improvement. Our approach at CTQ has drawn the attention of the State Superintendent of Education in South Carolina – and we are now working with 12 pilot schools in the state where teachers and administrators are designing their own system of collective leadership to solve their problems of practice. Not a short-term solution for sure. But we surely need to encourage policymakers and practitioners to consider more comprehensive approaches to the long-standing problems of teacher shortages. Yes, schools like Ranson IB can do a better job of using a few master teachers to help less prepared teaching colleagues. But they do not get at the root cause of the problem. As you note, “teachers in these settings not only operate in short-staffed settings, but they have little power to affect the necessary changes.”

    • Karis Parker

      Barnett,
      Thank you for you insightful response! I absolutely agree that we need to encourage policymakers and practitioners to consider more comprehensive approaches. While that is happening, we need to also consider school-specific approaches because the students coming through our doors each and every day cannot wait for those to be identified. I would suggest that both approaches need to be happening simultaneously, so that the students in school now still receive a high quality education while the problem is being solved long term.
      I appreciate the work CTQ has done around this issue!

      • Barnett Berry

        Karis. Indeed, the problem of teacher turnover is not going away – and the roots causes have been known (but often ignored) for a long time. And it is easier to implement quick fixes in urban communities like Charlotte than in more rural ones in Halifax County (NC) where almost 4 in 10 teachers left the district last year – leaving students a revolving door of inexperienced, under-prepared new recruits. North Carolina has invested in measuring teacher working conditions, but few new policies and practices have been developed in response to the findings. The last few years we have seen in NC teacher pay decreases, the elimination of the Teaching Fellows Program, and serious teacher preparation enrollment decreases. School funding in NC is still below pre-Recession levels and behind other states. I am convinced the public, and parents in particular, are willing to invest more in teachers and their profession. This is why stories from the classroom are so important. Stay tuned as a special commission, appointed by Governor Cooper, will be looking at how the state needs to address the Leandro ruling (of which Halifax is a plaintiff) — including the issues being addressed by this Roundtable, LPI, and CTQ.

  • Zaigham Khan

    Teachers in these settings not solely operate in undermanned settings, however they need very little power to have an effect on the mandatory changes. I created the selection to pursue college leadership to extend my influence over the challenges facing our students in Kansas town Online Employee Management system.