Written: May 2021 Updated: May 2022
How did COVID-19 affect teacher vacancies?
The teacher shortage hit an all-time high in 2020 when teachers across the country made the emergency switch to remote learning. Since then, the shortage has continued to grow across the nation. Teachers are underpaid, concerned for their physical and mental health, and exhausted by the extra duties assigned to them. The pandemic created these new challenges for educators and innovators alike to find solutions for the nationwide 88% of districts that reported difficulty filling vacancies. Since 2018, this number has only increased, making access to certified teachers more challenging.
As many schools are on the brink of crisis, districts are filling open classrooms with uncertified teachers. The Learning Policy Institute tracks reported teacher vacancies and roles filled by uncertified teachers. Districts in Oklahoma are reinstating retired educators, while institutions in Virginia and South Carolina report high rates of teacher burnout. New Mexico has ordered their National Guard to substitute teach. South Carolina teachers are asked to drive buses and cover lunch duty on top of their regular responsibilities. Unattainable expectations, switching to remote learning without proper training or technology, long working hours, and low salaries in southern states are the main contributing factors to early retirement and teachers changing professions.
High teacher turnover rates in impoverished districts coincide with fewer instructional days, reducing students' access to quality instruction and ability to build on previous knowledge. Thus, more substitutes without certifications are hired in low-income districts as short-term solutions to a growing problem, further reducing educational quality and increasing the education equity gap.
Is there a connection between teacher effectiveness and student achievement?
Supplementing with unqualified and uncertified teachers in schools not only harms student achievement but disproportionately impacts students of color. On average, low-socioeconomic districts across the country receive 16% less funding per student than districts with less poverty. A 2016 study from the Learning Policy Institute reported that schools with a higher concentration of minority students had four times as many uncertified teachers in the classroom. As teacher vacancies follow a steep upward trend, underserved districts are forced to compromise on certification requirements, maintaining a chronic cycle of inequitable education by placing fewer experienced instructors in classrooms.
Underprepared teachers and short-term substitutes have higher turnover rates in high-poverty schools, resulting in greater education gaps due to fewer instructional days and learning flow disruption for students. Students experience less stability in their classrooms. Plus, the costly expense of teacher turnover rates also negatively impacts districts that could be investing this money into student learning and improving instructional equipment.
Teachers with proper training are more equipped to handle challenging problems and individually approach students with varying solutions according to their educational needs. Personalized learning can make a huge impact on a student’s life. However, providing incentives for certified teachers to stay in districts and build rapport with students requires higher salaries.
Several states have passed legislation to increase teacher salaries. Texas raised teacher pay $1,000 with a 2% raise, though individual districts have budgeted for bigger signing bonuses. Missouri is working to raise the minimum salary for incoming teachers. Some concentrations are more difficult to hire than others. Math, science and special education prove to be difficult positions to fill. To combat this, Hawaii increased special education teacher pay by an impactful $10,000. Illinois is taking a different approach, tackling student loans. By forgiving some academic debt owed, teachers have more cash flow.
Leveling the playing field
In order to succeed at the same level as students at well-funded schools, more resources are required to “catch students up.” A framework developed by the Texas Education Agency proposed seven key factors that are critical to student and teacher success. Of these seven, an increase in teacher quality was directly linked to an increase in student achievement:
Teacher quality focuses on the need to recruit and retain effective teachers while supporting and enhancing the knowledge and skills of current staff with job-embedded professional development. Over two decades of research have demonstrated a clear connection between teacher quality and increased student performance.
For example, a 1998 study “identifies teacher quality as the most important school-related factor influencing student achievement. They conclude from their analysis of 400,000 students in 3,000 schools that, while school quality is an important determinant of student achievement, the most important predictor is teacher quality.”
How to hire and retain effective teachers
What is the solution to reducing intra-district funding disparities and providing equitable education? Though policymakers have attempted to address funding inequity between districts, differences in access to resources, tutors, and high-quality teachers still persist. The Learning Policy Institute noted that three factors contributed to high rates of turnover including burnout, school leadership, and compensation. Teachers are engaged when schools solve these issues. Supportive administrators and environments that foster professional development, support mental health and provide sufficient payment for teachers have higher rates of retention.
In addition to this, “Teachers who are well-prepared and well-mentored are much more likely to stay in teaching, as well as to be effective,” notes Carver-Thomas of the George Lucas Educational Foundation. In other words, teachers with certifications are more equipped to adapt to student needs and improve comprehension through long-term assessments, where uncertified short-term subs are less equipped to perform these tasks. Thus, short-term solutions continue to foster education inequity.
Creative problem solving is key when traditionally established options aren’t filling the gaps. Virtual education by thoroughly experienced, certified teachers could be the solution to reducing teacher vacancies of innovative administrators. Proximity Learning has been a leader in virtual K-12 education for ten years. We provided high-quality education to over 500 schools in the 2021-22 school year by livestreaming teachers into classrooms around the country. Innovative solutions that prioritize student comprehension and equity indicate efficiency and benefit the community as a whole when the measure of teacher success is determined by student success.