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North Carolina has a real teacher recruitment and retention crisis — a shortage in the number of qualified math, science, and special education teachers.  Elected officials need to be more attentive to labor market conditions for teachers in hard-to-staff subjects before they consider broader compensation, recruitment, and retention proposals.

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The U.S. Department of Education has collected data on teacher shortage areas since the early 1990s.  Last month, the agency published its latest report, "Teacher Shortage Areas Nationwide Listing 1990-1991 through 2014-2015."

The list of teacher shortage areas for North Carolina public schools has been consistent through the years (See Facts and Stats below).  In other words, the state has had (and has known about) a shortage of math, science, and special education teachers for a very long time. 

As the list indicates, the state addressed shortages in a handful of areas, such as Spanish and Theater, relatively quickly.  The supply of teachers for elective subjects is seldom a concern.  But persistent shortages of high school teachers in core subjects are another matter.  As the demand for these teachers outpaces the supply, the intra- and interstate competition for math, science, and special education teachers intensifies.  That is one reason why the John Locke Foundation has recommended (repeatedly) that legislators provide substantial pay supplements for outstanding teachers in hard-to-staff areas.  As surprising as this may sound, we actually believe that teacher compensation should be based, at least in part, on actual labor market conditions. 

In addition, lawmakers should expand the teacher talent pool by removing unnecessary barriers to entry.  In 2013, 6,155 students completed their teacher training at an institution of higher education in North Carolina, but the state’s schools of education continue to graduate few teachers in high-demand areas. 

Appalachian State University, which has one of the largest schools of education in North Carolina, typifies the market-be-damned trend in teacher education.  According to the federal Title II report, not one Appalachian student graduated from the university’s physics education program in 2013.  During the same school year, only one earth science education student graduated from the university’s school of education. They managed to graduate three chemistry teachers that year, the same number who graduated from Appalachian’s drama/dance teacher education program.

I do not mean to pick on ASU. It was not the only college or university to graduate relatively few science teachers.  UNC-Chapel Hill, Elon, and Wake Forest University eked out one physics teacher each.  In fact, the "winner" was Western Carolina University, which produced two whole physics teachers that year. 

Of the 6,155 prospective teachers who graduated in 2013, colleges and university teacher education programs in North Carolina combined to produce five physics teachers (or .08 percent of the total)…and 553 social studies teachers (or 9 percent of the total).  Someone should probably mention this disparity to those who fund and lead North Carolina’s schools of education.

When matters related to teacher compensation and turnover arise, the mainstream media, special interest groups, and teacher unions proclaim that all teachers are underpaid and all teacher turnover is bad.  The compensation and turnover of math, science, and special education teachers, however, is a much more serious problem than their uninformed characterizations of the teacher labor market suggest.

Facts and Stats

Teacher Shortage Areas, North Carolina, 1990-1991 through 2014-2015

1990-1991 and 1991-1992

Chemistry (9-12)
Physics (9-12)
Spanish (9-12)
Speech Impaired (K-12)


Chemistry (9-12)
Latin (9-12)
Mathematics (9-12)
Physics (9-12)


Chemistry (9-12)
Cross Categorical Disabled (K-12)
Emotionally Handicapped (K-12)
Latin (9-12)
Learning Disabled (K-12)
Physics (9-12)


Chemistry (9-12)
Cross Categorical (K-12)
Health Occupations (9-12)
Learning Disabled (K-12)


Computer Education (K-12)
Emotionally Handicapped (K-12)
Foreign Language (K-12)
Health Occupations (9-12)


Birth through Kindergarten Teachers
Emotionally Handicapped (K-12)
Health Occupations Education (Vocational)
Latin (K-12)
Reading (K-12)
Theater (K-12)
Trade and Industry (Vocational)


Behaviorally/Emotionally Handicapped
Cross Categorical Handicapped
Emotionally/Mentally Handicapped
Severely/Profoundly Handicapped

1998-1999 and 1999-2000

Mathematics (6-12)

2000-2001 and 2001-2002

Behaviorally/Emotionally Disabled
Cross Categorical Mildly Disabled
Math (6-12)

2002-2003 through 2004-2005

Math (6-9)
Science (6-9)
Math (9-12)
Science (9-12)


Mathematics (6-12)
Science (9-12): Biology, Chemistry, Earth Science, General Science, and Physics
Special Education: General Curriculum

2006-2007 through 2010-2011

Mathematics (Grades 6-12)
Science (Grades 6-9)
Science (Grades 9-12): Biology, Chemistry, Earth Science, General Science, and Physics
Special Education: General Curriculum


Mathematics (Grades 6-12)
Science (Grades 6-12)
Special Education: General Curriculum

2012-2013 and 2013-2014

Mathematics (Grades 6 – 9 and Grades 9 – 12)
Science (Grades 6 – 9 and Grades 9 – 12)
Special Education: General Curriculum


Mathematics (Grades 9 – 12)
Science (Grades 6 – 9 and Grades 9 – 12)
Special Education: Adapted Curriculum and General Curriculum

Acronym of the Week

USED — U.S. Department of Education

Quote of the Week

"The research on teacher labor markets is quite large and expanding; yet, as in most areas of education research, our knowledge is full of holes and only gets us a little ways towards identifying productive policy directions."

– Susanna Loeb and Tara Beteille, "Teacher labor markets and teacher labor market research," in G. Duncan and J. Spillane (Eds.) Teacher Quality: Broadening and Deepening the Debate, 2008.

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