by Dr. Terry Stoops
Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
I don’t blame North Carolinians for questioning, even dismissing, media reports of a public school teacher shortage.
Year after year, the mainstream media write Chicken Little stories based on anecdotal evidence, hearsay, and politically motivated testimonials to declare that teacher vacancies have reached “crisis” levels. They did so even as state-level data confirmed that North Carolina public schools had sufficient personnel, manageable turnover, and negligible vacancy rates.
Data and Their Limitations
Washington Post reporter Hannah Natanson noted in a recent article, “It is hard to know exactly how many U.S. classrooms are short of teachers for the 2022-2023 school year; no national database precisely tracks the issue.” In a rational world, reporters and pundits would not carelessly use the word “crisis” to describe a phenomenon they cannot quantify accurately. Moreover, they would contextualize the current teacher job market by examining vacancy trends using data readily available from state agencies. Shockingly few do so.
The statutorily mandated State of the Teaching Profession report offers the most reliable documentation of district teacher attrition, retention, mobility, and position vacancy rates available. In the 2020-21 Annual Report on the State of the Teaching Profession, North Carolina Department of Public Instruction analysts reported a slight increase in teacher turnover. The 8.2% teacher attrition rate in 2021 was higher than the 7.5% rate in 2020 but lower than the 9.0% rate posted five years ago.
On the other hand, the teacher vacancy rate has been on the rise. As of the first instructional day of the 2020-21 school year, the vacancy rate was 4.0%. While manageable, last year’s vacancy rate was a notable increase from the 1.5% rate reported in the 2016-17 State of the Teaching Profession report. Because the definition of a vacancy is a position not filled by an “appropriately licensed teacher,” this fact should not suggest that the positions remained unfilled. It is likely that long-term substitutes, retired teachers, and provisionally licensed teachers filled a number of these positions on a short- or long-term basis.
The State of the Teaching Profession is useful for assessing trends, but it does not offer dynamic tracking of attrition or vacancies during the summer hiring season. Positions posted on the Teach North Carolina Job Board and school and district websites come closer to providing real-time data. Nevertheless, these listings may not reflect the most recent hiring decisions or school staffing changes. In a viral message posted on Facebook last month, an assistant principal in Wake County wildly misstated the number of vacancies in the district’s AppliTrack system because she failed to account for positions that had been filled but not removed from the listing. She subsequently deleted her embarrassing post.
Although the market for math, science, and special education teachers is tight (and has been for decades), school district officials appear confident that they will be able to fill most of their teacher vacancies by the first day of school. According to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools chief human resources administrator Laura Francisco, the district is 96% staffed for teacher positions going into this school year.
No Simple Causes or Solutions
One reason teacher vacancy stories have been so popular in North Carolina is that they feed a favored narrative, namely that the Republican-led General Assembly has made teaching in North Carolina public schools undesirable. It also allows them to propose their favorite policy salve: pouring significantly more taxpayer money into teacher compensation and support staff.
If public school educators chose positions that allow them to maximize their earning potential, then high-compensation states would seldom encounter shortages. Nevertheless, most states appear to be contemplating compensation increases and licensure policy changes to fill teacher vacancies. Last week, the New Jersey Board of Education considered rule changes that would ease entry requirements for prospective teachers. Democratic lawmakers in Michigan recently filed a package of bills to alleviate teacher shortages in that state, mainly via enhanced financial rewards for student teachers and easing requirements. In June, the New York State Board of Regents modified teacher certification requirements to address current and projected teacher shortages.
The post-pandemic labor market is immeasurably complex and dynamic. National data show nearly two job openings for every job seeker, so trained educators have access to multiple career pathways. Their choice to remain or leave the profession depends on numerous factors, including salary, benefits, working conditions, job performance, family circumstances, access to amenities, and cost of living.
North Carolinians should be encouraged by the Professional Educator Preparation and Standards Commission’s proposal to make the teaching profession more appealing to younger workers who desire a more entrepreneurial workplace. “Recruiting studies show that Gen Z and Millennials want jobs that allow them to advance not by years of experience but by demonstrated outcomes,” Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt remarked at last week’s State Board of Education meeting. While we are years away from any potential restructuring of North Carolina’s teacher compensation and licensing system, I am pleased that our education leaders are laying the groundwork for this long-overdue reform.