Ashlee Clark, a chemistry teacher at Northwest Guilford High School, in Greensboro, N.C., was a graduate student doing animal research when she came to the teaching job through an alternative-licensure program that the Guilford County school district established to address its shortage of STEM teachers. Photo by Justin Cook for Education Week
Are you confused by the seemingly conflicting reports on the job outlook for teachers? It’s no wonder.
Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reveal lower-than-average job growth for most teachers compared to professionals in other industries over the next decade. At the same time, news headlines declare dramatic teacher shortages. Neither assertion is wrong.
It’s just that the total picture for K-12 teaching jobs is more nuanced than it appears in a brief headline or a simple statistic. Here, we will look below the surface of statistics, explain what’s driving the demand for teachers, and break down what it means for your job search this spring.
Prospects for teacher hiring: what’s behind the numbers?
Judging the job forecast for teachers strictly by the data may leave you feeling underwhelmed. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) forecasts that employment for kindergarten and elementary education teachers will grow by just three percent between now and 2028—slower than the average for all occupations. The BLS made the same prediction for middle school teachers. The overall job outlook for high school teachers is only slightly better, at four percent, according to the same data.
But those numbers don’t tell the whole story. In part, the sluggish growth in demand for teachers represents less-than-desirable actions by school districts to respond to hard-to-fill teacher job vacancies. Tara Kini, the director of state policy for the Learning Policy Institute, provides some examples. When districts can’t fill open spots, they may cancel the class and redirect students to other classrooms. That can create over-crowded conditions in those classrooms. Or, they may fill the vacancies with people who have “emergency-style” permits to teach.
While it’s possible that people who are hired with emergency permits may have no prior experience teaching children, they're becoming an ever-growing part of the educational landscape. In 2019, the Learning Policy Institute published a report revealing that 34 percent of teachers hired by the public schools in California had “substandard” credentials.
Bringing teachers into the classroom with emergency and other substandard certifications—options schools turn to when the pool of qualified teachers lags— demonstrates how great the demand is for teachers. And it’s by no means limited to California.
“The outlook is just not good… It’s just getting worse,” said Demetrius Johnson, who leads recruitment and development for the Clark County, Nev., school district in Las Vegas. “The bucket is emptying as fast as we can fill it,” adds Johnson, who says his district recruits teachers throughout the year.
Teacher labor market experts in other regions share Johnson’s view.
“In Tennessee, particularly in rural areas, schools struggle to fill all their classroom teacher posts,” said Amy Wooten, the vice president of policy for Deans for Impact. Wooten, who previously worked in the education sector in Tennessee, says there are other important differences in Tennessee, where demand for teachers is uneven depending on the region, as well as content areas and grade levels. She said there’s high demand for special education, science, and math teachers and much lower need for elementary education teachers.
When job searching, understanding the regional, state, and district-level variations is essential. For instance, in the Clark County district, there were 311 openings for elementary teachers at the end of last year, Johnson noted. That’s in sharp contrast to other districts that often say they have a heartier-than-average supply of K-5 teachers. But even when the types of teacher shortages differ among districts, the lack of supply generally stems from the same causes.
What’s driving the demand for teachers?
On a very basic level, it’s simple math: Not enough students are entering university-based teacher education programs and too many teachers are leaving the profession before retirement.
Since 2010, enrollment nationwide in teacher-preparation programs plummeted by more than one-third, according to a 2019 report from the Center for American Progress. Even top-rated programs report bleak outlooks. “Our numbers have gone down. We are graduating and recruiting fewer teachers than we have in the past,” said Marisa Cannata, a research associate professor at Vanderbilt University who called the decline “pretty significant.”
Among those who do enter the teaching profession, many districts struggle to keep them in the job. In a 2018 Gallup survey of 1,892 district superintendents, 61 percent said they have a hard time recruiting and retaining strong teachers. Another recent report found that about two-thirds of teachers who leave the profession do so before retirement age.
The lowdown for those looking for teaching jobs
What does all this mean for job seekers right now?
If you’re qualified to teach and flexible on the location and type of school in which you’re willing to work, the options are wide open.
If you are certified in a high-need specialization like math or special education and willing to relocate to, say, a far flung rural outpost that’s understaffed, your job might even come with some perks, like a signing bonus or student loan forgiveness option, according to several sources, including a report by the Education Commission of the States.
But, caution education experts, doing your research before you accept a job might lead to a far bigger payoff in the long-term than an enticing, one-time bonus.
“Consider the environment you’re going into,” said Kini of the Learning Policy Institute. “We know that teachers tend to stay when they’re supported, where they can collaborate with other teachers, and feel efficacious in the classroom.”