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What we know about teacher shortages and how to address them

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Many schools across the country have been grappling with teacher shortages. The combination of low pay, a strong economy, bitter politics and pandemic burnout have not only driven some teachers out of the business, it's also discouraged some new teachers from getting in. NPR's Cory Turner joins us now. Cory, thanks so much for being with us.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: Can we call this a national crisis?

TURNER: Well, as with so many things in education, Scott, it really does depend on where you live. According to what limited federal data we have, just under half of public schools had one or more teacher vacancies in October. Obviously, that's after the school year started. To get a ground-level view of this problem, producer Lauren Migaki and I, we went to a job fair for new teachers at Mississippi State University. And I just want to play you a little bit of what we heard from all of the school district recruiters who were there.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We have a lot of openings.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: We have a shortage of math teachers.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Math and some science.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Foreign language. Special education.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: High school English.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: All of the above.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Math and science are our hard-to-fill areas.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: So we're looking for a music teacher.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: We have math and the upper-level science areas.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: A little bit of everything. That's right.

TURNER: So teacher specialty definitely plays a part here. We heard special education, science and math in very high demand in lots of places. But honestly, teacher pay is still really important and also very low in many places. After you adjust for inflation nationwide, teacher pay, Scott, hasn't budged since 1990. The districts that have been hit hardest with these shortages tend to be isolated rural districts or big city districts that serve lots of students of color. Both struggle to compete for teachers with better-funded suburban districts. And that's exactly what I saw in Jackson, Miss., public schools, which is where I went after that job fair.

SIMON: And what did you hear in Jackson?

TURNER: According to the district, on average, the schools there lose about 1 in 5 teachers every year. And that was true even before the pandemic. I actually got sound of one of these vacancies at a high school in Jackson where the principal could not find a qualified Spanish teacher. So I dropped by the classroom, where the students are taking Spanish 2 on their laptops.

What just happened? I saw a big red X.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: If you get it wrong, it gives you a chance to try again.

TURNER: How do you like this?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: I think it's all right. Like, I think it would be better if we actually had a teacher.

SIMON: Oh, my gosh. That's so sad to hear as a parent. What can be done with teacher shortages?

TURNER: Well, the good news is there is a lot that can be done. The question is, is it being done? Many places, including Jackson, are offering hiring bonuses now for folks in hard-to-staff subjects. Also, many states now have or are building what are called grow-your-own programs. This is where aspiring teachers or potential teachers inside these communities can get help paying for a bachelor's degree or a master's degree in exchange for agreeing to stay and teach.

And then, there are the folks who are already teaching, Scott. Again, better pay is key, but so is better support especially for teachers in their first few years. And I just want to share as we wrap this up - there is an amazing example of this happening in Alaska right now. It's called the Alaska Statewide Mentor Project. And there retired veteran teachers actually work full time as mentors, often flying to isolated villages all over the state to help coach and support new teachers. Again, though, the challenge - these programs cost money. And in many places, that money either won't come or it won't keep coming unless lawmakers on both sides of the aisle understand the urgency of the problem.

SIMON: NPR's Cory Turner, thanks so much.

TURNER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.