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Evidence Matters | Coming Up Short: Understanding the “Why” Behind the Teacher Shortage

November 16, 2023

As we discussed in our last post, understanding the numbers behind the teacher shortage—particularly when it comes to shortages in certain subject areas or geographic regions—is an important first step in addressing the crisis. Just as important, however, is taking a deeper look at the “why” behind these numbers.

According to a 2022 Gallup Poll, teaching was at the top of the most burned out professions in the United States. Somewhat surprisingly, just two years after the onset of a global pandemic, K-12 teachers reported higher rates of burnout than frontline healthcare workers or those working in government.

As researchers and policymakers have continued to look for the root causes of teachers’ declining job satisfaction—which is at the lowest it has been in five decades—some trends have emerged:

To complicate matters, while these factors contributing to teacher burnout are significant, they aren’t the only causes of the declining number of teachers. Alongside the increased work and time demands, the overall public perception of the teaching profession has continued to decline. In a 2018 PDK International poll, 54% of parents indicated that they would not want their children to become teachers. Respondents to the poll indicated low pay, lack of respect, and concerns for safety as reasons they would not want their child to enter the profession.

Taken together, these issues present a significant challenge for districts and policymakers as they look to fill vacant positions. In addition, research indicates that these factors can also negatively impact student well-being and performance. A 2013 study found a significant, negative impact of teacher turnover on student achievement in both math and English/language arts, particularly for low-performing minority students. Given that researchers have consistently identified higher levels of  teacher attrition and turnover among schools that serve higher numbers of these students, addressing the root causes of burnout and dissatisfaction must be a top priority.

As a 2019 RAND report highlights, the effect of a student’s teacher is estimated to be two to three times larger than any other school-related factor. Additionally, research has shown that the dwindling supply of STEM teachers is seen most often within schools that serve higher numbers students living in poverty. As we look to address the opportunity gap between our most and least advantaged students, identifying ways to reduce the teacher shortage, particularly in low-income and rural areas, will be critical.

If we want to give every student the best possible chance of success, ensuring that each classroom is staffed with a high-quality, healthy teacher is an important first step. In our final post in this series, we will examine possible strategies that school leaders and policymakers might consider as they work toward addressing the very real human factors behind the figures.

Earlier posts in this series:

Coming Up Short: The National Teacher Shortage by the Numbers


Kelly Gregory is the Riley Institute’s Director for Public Education Partnerships and Projects and previously taught for 11 years in South Carolina public schools. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and a master’s degree in Special Education. She also holds a National Board certification as an Exceptional Needs Specialist. She can be reached at kelly.gregory0@furman.edu.