The Enduring Teacher Shortage Myth

“Many teachers have left the profession and gone into other work of various kinds because they could make more money. Frequently the best teachers are the ones who have left the profession because they have been able to command exceptional salaries elsewhere.” (H/T Tom Gantert.)

The above quote is taken from the front page of the April 16, 1920 edition of the Charlevoix County Herald, a newspaper in Michigan. And the story has replicated itself repeatedly on a nationwide basis for the last 102 years. Just a few of the many recent examples: In June 2021, the National Education Association warned us that “Educators Ready for Fall, But a Teacher Shortage Looms.” We were told in September 2021: “Teacher shortage affecting education nationwide.” The Epoch Times sounded alarm bells in May 2022: “US Schools Facing Mass Exodus of Teachers Who Won’t Return This Fall.” In early June 2022, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said “Americans shouldn’t be surprised by disruptions caused by teacher shortages and the emerging labor market crisis in K-12 schools since educators are rarely supported in the ways other professions recruit and retain employees.” And NBC reported in June 2022 that Joe Biden “wants to fix the nation’s teacher shortage.”

So it seems that we are indeed in the midst of a serious crisis, right?

Wrong. There is absolutely no teacher shortage writ large in the United States, and actual data puts things into perspective. Researcher and economics professor Benjamin Scafidi found that between 1950 and 2015, the number of teachers increased about 2.5 times as fast as the uptick in students. But even more outrageous is the fact that other education employees—administrators, teacher aides, counselors, social workers, etc.—rose more than seven times the increase in students. Scafidi added that despite the staffing surge, students’ academic achievement has stagnated or even fallen over the past several decades. According to the latest data from 2019, Scafidi’s numbers are still accurate. As Heritage Foundation scholar Lindsay Burke notes, in public schools across America today, “teachers make up just half of all education jobs.”

While it’s true that certain districts may be short on teachers or lack teachers in certain subject areas, there are simple fixes to these problems. By cutting back on some of the excessive non-teaching staff, districts would have more money to entice worthy men and women to the profession. They could even pay bonuses to talented folks to lure them in—pending approval from the local teachers union, of course.

Additionally, if a school district finds itself short on teachers, the state could help by lowering barriers to entering the profession. For example, teacher credentialing could be made more flexible. We could certainly eliminate our mostly useless education schools as an entry point. As I document here, a great majority of my time in ed school was spent learning about things like sociocultural identities, institutionalized discrimination, and anti-racist math. And that was in the 1980s—long before the equity—and gender-crazed, emotion-based progressive weltanschauung had fully engulfed our colleges.

But isn’t it true that teachers leave the profession in greater numbers than other professions?

Again, negative. Actually, the reverse is true. As Mike Antonucci writes, “They Leave Their Jobs at Lower Rates Than Almost Everyone Else.” In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the teacher quit rate is lower than every other job category except federal employees. Antonucci also issues an important clarification. “‘Quits’ include those who left their present job to accept a different job. So if a teacher leaves District A for a higher-paying job in District B, she quits and is counted in the statistics. If we examine quits without examining hires, we get only half the picture.”

It’s worth noting, too, that one of the subtexts behind much of the hyperventilating over the alleged teacher shortage is that “class sizes will balloon,” and everyone knows that students benefit from smaller classes, right?

Well, no. In 1998, Hoover Institution senior fellow and economist Eric Hanushek released the results of an impressive review of class-size studies. Examining 277 separate studies on the effect of teacher-pupil ratios and class-size averages on student achievement, he found that 15 percent of the studies found an improvement in achievement, while 72 percent found no effect at all and 13 percent found that reducing class size had a negative effect on achievement. While Hanushek admits that in some cases, children might benefit from a small-class environment, there is no way “to describe a priori situations where reduced class size will be beneficial.”

While teachers may not be leaving their schools, students certainly are. Released on May 31, a report from the National Center for Education Statistics reveals that from fall 2019 to fall 2020, total public school enrollment for pre-K through 12th grade dropped 3 percent from 50.8 million to 49.4 million students. (The number of public school teachers during the same time period dropped by just 1,881 or 0.06 percent.) Per Education Week, “The decline erased a decade of growth by bringing public school enrollment back to 2009 levels. It was the largest single-year decline since 1943, when schools were operating in the midst of World War II, according to the report.” Also, according to the Return to Learn Tracker, in 19 of 46 states the student population in public schools declined by 3 percent or more from 2020 to 2022; only five states saw net gains.

And just where are the public school leavers now being educated?

During the 2020-21 school year, charter school enrollment grew 7 percent, the largest increase in years according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Homeschooling has more than doubled nationally since 2020, and shows no evidence of  declining, even though most of the covid craziness has subsided. The Census Bureau reports that between 2012 and 2020, the number of homeschooling families remained steady at around 3.3 percent. But by May 2020, about 5.4 percent of U.S. households with school-aged children reported they were homeschooling. And by October 2020, the number jumped to 11.1 percent. Meanwhile, the number of black families choosing to home-school increased almost five-fold during that time, from 3.3 percent to 16.1 percent.

During the 2020–21 school year, approximately 608,000 students used a voucher, tax-credit scholarship, or education savings account (ESA) to educate their children, according to policy experts Jason Bedrick and Ed Tarnowski. In all, 19 states created seven new programs and expanded 23 existing programs in the 2020-21 school year.

In any event, blind to the actual need for fewer teachers, the shortage alarmists just won’t quit, and are constantly coming up with new angles to push their agenda. In February 2022, the National Education Association released the results of a poll which found that “55 percent of educators are thinking about leaving the profession earlier than they had planned.” The NEA claims this is due to the fact that teachers are “exhausted and exasperated” from COVID fallout and are “under an unprecedented level of strain.

But now that the COVID threat has abated, I highly suspect that nowhere near 55 percent will quit. If for no other reason, teacher healthcare and other generous perks are too juicy to throw away.

The teachers unions talk up the faux shortage as a way to get more money poured into education and the media do so either because they are true believers or just can’t resist a sky-is-falling headline. But the citizenry must resist the blather. As former president of National Council on Teacher Quality Kate Walsh recently wrote, “Nothing causes more harm to teacher quality than the threat of a teacher shortage, and only wildfires spread faster.” And, amazingly, those wildfires have been raging for over a century now.  

Editor’s Note:  A version of this article first appeared at FrontPage Magazine.

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About Larry Sand

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network—a nonpartisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

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