School Blog

Teacher Shortages: New Pressures on Middle Level Schools

Teacher Shortages: New Pressures on Middle Level Schools

By Jacob Carson

October 3rd, 2021

Who could have imagined a teacher shortage? Just a few short years ago, graduates from teacher education programs were doing all kinds of jobs that couldn’t be further removed from their years of preparation. One wry joke that circulated among teacher education Seniors at a large university was voiced by the class president at a graduation exercise: "As you go out into the world, you are probably pondering the questions you will be confronting as you begin your professional life – questions such as ‘do you want fries with that?’"

Now, teaching has the hottest job prospects of practically any college major. Student teachers are being offered full-time jobs before the midpoint of their practice teaching semester; thousands of people without teaching credentials are being hired on "emergency" certificates obtained by desperate districts; and, even at this time of the year, some districts have hundreds of positions filled only by long-term substitutes, some of whom have less than four years of college.

Districts are scrambling to raise entry-level salaries, offer signing bonuses, pay for relocation expenses, and arrange for low-cost or free housing for the first few months of employment. Recruitment fairs have turned into interviews, and students are leaving with signed employment contracts in their hands.

Reasons for the Shortage

The shortage has been going on for years. COVID-19 just exacerbated the problem. How did this shortage happen? The reasons can be summarized as follows:

  • A mini-baby boom has hit America. Census projections show that between 2020 and 2025, school populations will increase by 15%, with elementary and middle school enrollments showing a 12% growth, and high school enrollments an astonishing 28% increase. By 2030, 40% of all students will be minority or limited English proficient.
  • Class size mandates in many states have increased the number of teachers that must be employed to meet new state enrollment standards. New curriculum mandates, such as graduation requirements that include reading, advanced math and science or technology, have created new demands for specific types of teachers.
  • Teacher supplies are declining. A strong economy attracts people to other, higher-paying jobs (especially in math and science); tougher preparation and examination standards have made teaching a more difficult field to enter; more opportunities for women and minorities in other fields have reduced two traditional recruitment pools for teacher education programs. The result is that traditional preparation programs are not providing enough teachers for the nation’s schools. In Florida, for example, the state’s thirty teacher education institutions provide less than half of all the teachers employed in the state each year.
  • High attrition and retirement rates (7% annually in the public schools and 12% in the private schools) create vacancies that are increasingly difficult to fill. Complicating this is the impending retirement of thousands of teachers who began their careers in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In some regions, as many as 35% of the current teachers will be eligible to retire in the next five years.

The demand for teachers in the decade between 2016 and 2026 will see a 21% growth in demand for teachers beyond simple replacement. That means we will need 21% more teachers than we currently have, not including those that have to be replaced because of retirement and attrition. The greatest demand, a 59% increase, will be for special education teachers. Demand for secondary teachers, primarily math and science, will increase by 22%, elementary teachers by 10%, and kindergarten and preschool teachers by 20%.

The Effects of a Shortage

Not surprisingly, those children who need the best teachers feel the effects of a teacher shortage most directly. Schools in poor, urban communities, isolated rural environments, and those serving a large number of students with special needs are likely to bear the brunt of the shortage as qualified teachers seek higher pay and more attractive teaching conditions in wealthier, higher-paying districts and schools.

A decline in qualified teachers also means that many students will not receive instruction in advanced mathematics, sciences, or foreign languages. This, in turn, makes them less competitive for college admission and, ultimately, results in a diminished future for them and their families.

Children with special needs are also less likely to be properly served in the schools where qualified teachers are not available. Their problems, if not addressed, are manifested in growing failure and retention rates as well as in disruptive behavior and increased rates of suspensions and school expulsions.

The list of problems goes on and on: overcrowded classes in certain subjects, unprepared teachers trying to teach difficult or technical course content, an absence of specialists to help students learn reading or other basic skills. In short, fewer teachers means, quite simply, fewer kids getting the services and help they need.

The Special Case of the Middle School

A district official in a large Florida district said recently, "a teacher shortage hits the middle school with a special vengeance." Because specific middle school teacher preparation programs are rare, middle schools typically recruit teachers from the ranks of those who were prepared for either the elementary or secondary school. As vacancies occur in elementary and high schools, teachers are often tempted to move out of the middle school to a teaching assignment that more closely matches their preparation. One teacher commented, "I loved teaching 6th graders, but once I had a chance to move to the primary level, I grabbed it. That’s why I went into elementary education in the first place." Similar arguments are offered by secondary subject matter specialists who leave middle school to teach a more sophisticated version of their content at the high school level.

As a result, middle schools not only suffer the effects of the system-wide shortage, they are often the pool from which district elementary and high schools fill their own vacancies. The net effect of this pattern of recruitment means that middle schools must not only deal with shortages, but must also cope with a disproportionately high number of new teachers each year. As one principal put it, "not only do I have to recruit to fill my retirement vacancies, I have to try to replace the excellent, experienced teachers that are getting picked off by the elementary and the high school. On top of that, I have to try to mentor and supervise a staff that’s made up largely of beginning teachers or those that are so close to retirement that they didn’t want to move to a new assignment."

What Are Schools Doing?

Most districts have begun to give systematic attention to the shortage in their own communities. Generally, their efforts focus on three goals: recruiting new teachers, keeping the teachers they have, and reducing attrition in the first years of teaching.

Recruiting and Keeping Teachers

These activities tend to focus on creating a welcoming environment, usually with specific attention to the financial needs of teachers. Some districts pay signing bonuses of up to $20,000, payable over four or five years. Others start teachers on the 3rd or 4th step of the salary schedule, a move designed to eliminate the "salary compression" or "salary inversion" that occurs when schools raise entering teacher salaries without also raising the salaries of those who have been teaching for 3-5 years.

Special programs have been created to recruit mid-career people from other fields, retired professionals, and even former teachers who have retired! One of the most innovative was the U.S. Department of Defense "Troops to Teachers" program that sought to train college-educated military personnel, being released as a result of military downsizing, as teachers. That program, originally introduced in 1993, has now been terminated as of October 1st, 2021.

Another expansive program, "Transition to Teaching" was established by Congress to serve high need schools in high need districts (local education agencies or LEAs), and extend federal support to other mid-career people seeking to prepare for a teaching career.

In some high-priced communities, teacher housing is subsidized, and, in others, a commuting subsidy is provided for teachers who must commute from distant locations. One national bank even provides mortgages at below-market interest rates for teachers.

In some towns, districts have enlisted local businesses in their recruitment efforts. These businesses offer teacher discounts on everything from banking to clothing to groceries. Others offer free services ranging from furniture moving to childcare to automobile and home repair.

And even that hasn’t been enough for some of the most challenging environments. Many cities have been forced to recruit teachers from outside the United States, bringing in English-speaking teachers from throughout North America, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Asia and Latin America.

The net result of all of these efforts has been to produce a teaching force that is probably the most diverse in American history. Not only does the teaching profession represent every conceivable form of ethnic, economic, and linguistic diversity, but, less happily, a vast array of preparation that ranges from well-prepared in content and pedagogy to barely prepared in either.

Reducing Attrition

Not surprisingly, districts have also focused on keeping the teachers they already have. Ironically, many districts find themselves trying to undo the effects of early retirement incentive programs that had been put in place only several years ago. Some districts have enlisted the aid of state legislatures to change retirement regulations and offer incentives for teachers who wish to teach for several years beyond their maximum benefit accumulation years. Still others have allowed teachers to collect retirement benefits and a salary for a designated number of years in order to keep them in the classroom.

Despite these financial incentives, one of the greatest challenges is helping those teachers who were not fully prepared to enter the classroom adjust to the demands presented by contemporary middle school youth. As a result, schools have launched a number of "support" programs ranging from mentorship by master teachers to collaborative training relationships with universities and colleges of education. Principals report spending more and more time helping new teachers adjust to the rigors of the profession, and many team leaders and department chairs have replaced their traditional program management duties with mentorship responsibilities.

As a result of careful attention to the real needs of beginning teachers, many districts have been able to reduce their attrition rates substantially

What the Future Holds

Judging from both population trends and the rise in teacher vacancies, this shortage is not likely to be resolved anytime soon. Districts that have not yet experienced a grave shortage can probably expect to do so in the next decade as retirements increase and populations surge.