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Prof. Dr. Richard Ingersoll

Why Schools in the U.S. Have Difficulty Staffing Their Classrooms with Qualified Teachers

Contemporary educational thought in the U.S. holds that one of the pivotal causes of inadequate school performance is the inability of schools to adequately staff classrooms with qualified teachers, especially in fields such as mathematics and science. It is commonly believed that shortages of teachers are at the root of these staffing problems, and these shortfalls are, in turn, primarily due to recent increases in teacher retirements and student enrollments.

This talk summarizes a series of analyses of national data I’ve undertaken to investigate the magnitude and sources of, and solutions to, these school staffing problems. The primary data utilized in this investigation are from the Schools and Staffing Survey and its supplement, the Teacher Follow-up Survey, conducted from the late 1980s to 2016 by the National Center for Education Statistics of the U.S. Department of Education.

The data show that there are indeed widespread school staffing problems—that is, many schools experience difficulties filling their classrooms with qualified candidates, especially in the fields of math and science. But, the data indicate that, contrary to conventional wisdom, school staffing problems are not primarily due to teacher shortages, in the sense of an insufficient new supply of qualified teachers.  The data document that new supply of qualified teachers, even in mathematics and science, is more than sufficient to cover the losses of teachers due to retirement and to cover new demand due to increased student enrollments.  Rather, the data indicate that school staffing problems are primarily due to a “revolving door” -- where large numbers of qualified teachers depart their jobs well before retirement.  The data show that the amount of teacher turnover accounted for by retirement is relatively minor when compared to that associated with other factors, such as teacher job dissatisfaction and teachers pursuing other jobs. 

Teacher turnover greatly varies between different types of schools and the data document that schools’ working and organizational conditions are strongly tied to teachers’ decisions to stay or depart.  Several school factors stand out as having a strong connection to the retention of teachers: the amount of collective influence faculty have over key decisions in their school; the degree of autonomy teachers have within their own classrooms, and the caliber of school leadership and support for teachers, especially beginning teachers.  The data show that teacher recruitment initiatives – traditionally dominant in the policy realm – will not solve the staffing problems of schools if they do not also address the conditions in schools that are behind low teacher retention.  The talk closes by summarizing research on some types of initiatives that have been successful in improving teacher retention.