The teacher shortage is national news. In fact, I’ve seen several morning news shows lead with this story—asking if children will have a teacher on their first day of school and suggesting that this problem is so out of control that the average parent needs to worry. There’s no denying that, in order to educate students, there must be a teacher at the front of every classroom. But data about the teacher workforce is not consistently clear or available, which suggests a bigger issue is at the heart of this crisis: states don’t have enough information right now to determine whether there is a teacher shortage and identify where those shortages exist.
In an attempt to address the teacher shortage, Secretary of Education Cardona and Secretary of Labor Walsh released a letter earlier this week that laid out several solutions. They suggested that states establish Registered Apprenticeship Programs for teaching, increase collaboration across workforce and education systems to create pathways for more people to become teachers, and ensure that teachers are paid a livable and competitive wage.
Of course, there should be clear, high-quality pathways into the classroom and teachers should be paid for their hard work. But while the Biden administration has sent clear messages about how much they value data, this plan cites no federal data. Worse, it fails to call for investments in state data systems that would give state leaders the information they need to prevent and solve a teacher shortage in the future or to assess whether any solutions worked. This letter is a missed opportunity to shine a light on a critical long-term solution: collecting better teacher workforce data. With the proper information, leaders can know whether there are shortages, where they exist geographically or in specific subject areas, and which of the myriad solutions to apply.
While states like Massachusetts and Texas have invested in teacher data infrastructure and may have a clearer picture of their state’s teacher workforce, most states do not currently have robust data on their teacher workforce that could direct leaders toward solutions. In fact, researchers recently attempted to determine whether there was a national teacher shortage. They found that data was extremely limited and could not find credible estimates of the extent of teacher shortages. In 13 states—states that represent approximately 50 million public school students—the researchers were unable to find any credible estimate of vacant positions and other states where the information was significantly out of date. Without data to give leaders insight into the problem, it’s hard—if not impossible—to say definitively that there is a teacher shortage in any given state, or nationally, and to identify how leaders should respond.
Because state data systems currently can’t provide leaders with evidence to guide next steps, any potential solutions are a stab in the dark. The solutions proposed by Secretaries Cardona and Walsh are mainly focused on teachers entering the profession. But states don’t have the data to tell them if the problem is teachers leaving the profession, not entering the profession to begin with, or both.
While the Secretaries’ proposed steps may be good investments, they are solutions to long-term workforce issues based on anecdotes. What states need most right now to develop evidence-based solutions is high-quality supply (teacher licenses) and demand (school level vacancies) data. States won’t know if problems exist or if they’ve pulled the right levers to solve those problems because they don’t have data to identify the problem or evaluate the impact of the solution applied.
With the latest long-term NAEP scores showing the pandemic’s devastating impact on learning, it’s more important than ever to have robust information about the factor in the classroom which is most closely associated with learning: teachers. Whether leaders are trying to understand the extent of shortages or build strategies for supporting and retaining teachers, data is the common thread for determining what happens next. To ensure that states can harness their data to find evidence-based solutions, the federal government must support them in modernizing their data systems. Without data on pathways and the teacher workforce, state leaders are left in the dark to guess about both problems and solutions.