Staffed Up is a monthly series examining school staffing best practices and solutions for teacher recruitment and retention. Catch up on previous installments here.
Widespread school staffing issues didn’t dissipate in 2023, though questions arose this year as to whether the matter may resolve itself moving forward — particularly for instructional positions.
At the start of the 2023-24 school year, 86% of public schools reported difficulties hiring teachers, and 83% faced challenges with hiring nonteaching staff, according to survey data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Even so, there was a dip in the percentage of schools that felt understaffed compared to the start of the previous school year, at 45% versus 53% respectively, NCES found.
Additionally, researchers from several higher education institutions including Kansas State University and the University of Pittsburgh found that estimated teacher vacancies nationwide jumped 51% between August 2022 and August 2023.
But a 2024 spending deadline looms on the horizon for the final pot of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funding, which has helped fuel innovative solutions to address school staffing shortages exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
This scenario has led some finance experts to warn school leaders that they may have to ease hiring practices — and even consider potential layoffs — as a result of declining enrollment and the end of the unprecedented federal relief funding.
With schools balancing their needs alongside the reality of this financial cliff, K-12 Dive takes a look back on four key school staffing themes that emerged this year as we explored the variety of solutions and factors influencing hiring and retention challenges in school buildings.
Schools continue embracing creative approaches
School districts and state agencies are continuing to explore fresh solutions that have cropped up this year. Districts are increasingly expressing interest in and making significant investments to hire certified virtual teachers who deliver live lessons to in-person groups of students via companies like Elevate K-12 and Proximity.
Meanwhile, more states are launching registered teacher apprenticeship programs with the U.S. Department of Labor. Since the first registered teaching apprenticeship program in Tennessee was approved nearly two years ago, 26 states and Puerto Rico have established their own programs as of October. Details for these programs can vary by state, but the model essentially pays for prospective teachers to receive mentoring as they complete in-classroom training along with coursework to earn a teaching degree and a license.
Other approaches that education leaders continued to rely on this year included upping bonuses — typically through ESSER funds — for staffing positions including substitute teachers and bus drivers. Higher education partnerships were another strategy leveraged this year, especially to help schools find mental health staff.
One drawback of these newer approaches for addressing shortages, however, is that there’s still little-to-no available research evaluating whether they can mitigate national teacher shortages.
Will the ESSER fiscal cliff change anything?
As school districts used federal relief funds to push bonuses to various staff positions during the pandemic, questions arose as to whether those efforts are sustainable. If not, will the dwindling of those temporary pay boosts hurt retention and recruitment?
Meanwhile, some teachers and school staff are pushing for higher wages amid inflation, an adjustment that will become increasingly difficult for school districts to accommodate once ESSER funds dry up. Without ongoing raises, it may also become increasingly difficult to both recruit and retain teachers.
With ESSER’s spending deadline nearing, other fears about staff layoffs are rising as some schools relied on the federal relief funding to hire certain positions.
Impacts to teacher diversity efforts
Before the U.S. Supreme Court’s 6-3 ruling in June that race-conscious admissions policies at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill violate the 14th Amendment, which guarantees equal protection under the law, there was concern among higher education experts that efforts to diversify the teacher workforce would diminish.
The repeal of race-conscious admissions would only place additional barriers in front of prospective teachers of color, Monika Williams Shealey, board chair of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, told K-12 Dive in April. “It’s making our jobs even more difficult in trying to recruit highly qualified, diverse, talented teachers,” said Shealey, who is also the dean of the College of Education and Human Development at Temple University in Pennsylvania.
On top of that, it’s expected that staff layoffs triggered by the ESSER fiscal cliff may impact teachers of color first. A report released in March by TNTP, a nonprofit alternative teacher preparation program, found when districts implement seniority-based policies as they consider layoffs, teachers of color — who are more likely than White teachers to be in the early stages of their career — are more likely to face the consequences.
Given these factors, districts may have to reevaluate their recruitment and layoff practices as they determine the best ways to hire and retain more teachers of color.
School and state education leaders are exploring new models to bolster pipelines by recruiting from within their own communities and districts.
Registered teacher apprenticeships are one approach growing in popularity and often tap into high school students, paraprofessionals or community members to find and train the next generation of teachers. Providing paraprofessionals opportunities for professional development can also give them room to grow and advance in their careers in early childhood education.
Meanwhile, some schools are even considering training teachers in cyberdefense to address urgent cybersecurity workforce shortages within the vulnerable education sector.
Sometimes, recruiting from within can create shortages elsewhere. For instance, as substitute teachers increasingly look to transition to full-time teaching positions, that pipeline can make it more difficult for some principals to address their subbing needs.