The question of staffing shortages in the K-12 education sector has typically focused on the issue of teacher vacancies; that is, whether there is a sufficient supply of credentialed teachers ready and willing to make a commitment to school districts. Because of reports of increased shortages during and after the COVID-19 pandemic, the issue of teacher vacancies has recently attracted heightened attention.

Yet, teacher vacancies represent only one aspect of the K-12 education labor market, and hence only one dimension of the larger topic of K-12 staffing.

The K-12 educator staffing shortage is not just about teacher vacancies, for example:

  • There is the issue of day-to-day instructional coverage, which is affected by short-term teacher absences, as well as longer-term teacher vacancies.
  • There is the difference between having a “warm body” in the room to monitor students versus having fully credentialed teachers at the appropriate grade level or area of specialization.
  • The rough balance between aggregate demand for and supply of teachers can conceal massive differences in the availability of teachers by subject matter, grade level, and school demographic characteristics, and location (Edwards et al., 2022).
  • Teachers make up only one component of the K-12 labor force.

Therefore, the health of the K-12 labor market requires attending to the full range of education professionals, including, but not limited to, administrators, support staff, and substitute teachers. This is because the absence of an adequate supply of any of these positions may influence the school climate, teacher workload and retention, and overall school staff morale.

To understand the severity of present staffing challenges in public schools, an integrated approach that takes the entire K-12 labor market into account should be employed. The Educator Workforce Project adopted this approach when defining and attempting to understand staffing shortages.

In this report, the following elements from a targeted literature review are considered in operationalizing shortages and the impact of shortages on schools, educators, and students:

  1. Vacancies (Staffing Supply). The lack of a full-time appropriately credentialed teacher for a position, with the recognition that the impact of vacancies can vary depending on the context (e.g., district, grade level, and/or subject). Survey and teacher headcount data showed districts reported almost double the number of teaching vacancies. At the same time, applicants for teaching position are half what they were compared to prior to the pandemic.
  2. Mobility and Exiting the Profession (Staffing Demand). This could be defined as moving to a different position (even within schools), to a different school (even within the same district), to another district, or exiting the profession altogether. While each has different organizational
    impacts and implications, each type creates demand and a vacancy.
  3. Instructional Coverage and Employee Absences. Shortages of substitute teachers and other staff can create issues with instructional coverage or school operations that have the potential to adversely impact educators, leaders, students, and schools. In turn, the need for substitute teachers and instructional coverage is also impacted by problems with employee absences.

Each of these elements of staffing shortages are examined using state administrative data; statewide surveys and interviews with principals, district administrators, and substitute teachers; and comparative case studies of one urban and one rural district that include teacher absence data, as well as a variety of staff perspectives including teachers, paraprofessionals, principals, district administrators, and substitute teachers. Care was taken to preserve the anonymity and confidentiality of research participants. Together, these elements allowed the research team to take a detailed look at how each group perceives and experiences these various issues.

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