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What Are the Underlying Causes of the Teacher Shortage?

Read Time: 3 minutes

We, as a country, have a problem. We’re running out of teachers as talented individuals leave the public school sector in favor of less stressful and more productive endeavors. Why are so many teachers, even those that love teaching, leaving the field behind? Let’s take a look at the underlying cause of the growing teacher shortage and what officials can do to stem the tide.

By the Numbers

When the 2017-2018 school year started, roughly 50 million students started the year in either public or private schools, not counting the 20 million students who are currently enrolled in colleges across the country. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there were 3.2 million teachers employed during the 2017-2018 school year. This should lead to a student-teacher ratio of roughly 16:1.

While the numbers look good on paper, it isn’t the case in many school districts across the country. Sometimes, 30 to 40 students are packed into classrooms designed to hold half that many with one tired and overworked teacher.

Fewer Graduates

We’re not referring to high school graduates here. The number of people seeking education or related majors has dropped dramatically in recent years. Between 2012 and 2013, the number of adult students dropped from 179,000 to 164,000, and the numbers are still declining.

This means there aren’t enough new teachers to offset existing ones leaving the field or those retiring. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, teaching is still a growing field, but as more and more teachers are exploring other uses for their skills and degrees, will it remain so in the future?

Unrealistic Expectations

Many good teachers who have served their schools and districts well for years or decades are being driven out of the profession by unrealistic expectations. Two-thirds of surveyed teachers stated they felt like their work expectations had increased exponentially over the previous five years, and most felt this increase is negatively affecting their physical and mental health.

Unrealistic testing expectations for their students are also impacting teachers. School funding is now directly tied to Common Core test scores. Teachers who acquired tenure suddenly found themselves fighting for their job every year if students’ test scores dropped below a certain threshold.

Thanks to these expectations, up to one out of every five teachers is planning on leaving the field. That removes 640,000 teachers, leaving just 2.56 million qualified educators. If we look at the numbers above, that raises the student to teacher ratio to 19.53:1, which will only serve to compound the problem of overcrowded classes and overworked teachers.

It’s Not a Shortage

There isn’t actually a teacher shortage in the United States. There are plenty of people who are qualified, educated and able to teach. They just aren’t teaching.


As with most things, it comes down to the money. Teachers aren’t being paid enough. They aren’t getting raises, even ones previously promised by those in power that would offset the cost of inflation. They receive minimal supplies with the expectation to make up any differences by purchasing items out of pocket.

Teachers aren’t walking out across the country because they hate teaching. They’re walking out because they don’t receive adequate pay or the power they need to create the best learning environment. It makes it difficult to create the next generation of thinkers.

Some school districts are even talking about outsourcing — bringing in qualified teachers from other countries to supplement their dwindling workforce. These teachers are happy to come to the United States, and the school boards are happy because they work for a much smaller salary than Americans.

There isn’t a teacher shortage. There’s a shortage of school districts that are willing to invest in good teachers by paying them a living wage and giving them the funds and supplies they need to teach the next generation. Existing teachers are leaving, and potential new teachers are changing their majors. The entire public school system needs an overhaul so teachers can pass their knowledge on to the next generation.

What Are the Underlying Causes of the Teacher Shortage?
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Category: Education


One comment

  1. Whoa! This is impressive. I leaned back in my chair a bit and was just sitting here pondering everything you said. Really cool.


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Article by: Megan Ray Nichols

Megan Ray Nichols is a freelance science writer and science enthusiast. Her favorite subjects include astronomy and the environment. Megan is also a regular contributor to The Naked Scientists, Thomas Insights, and Real Clear Science. When she isn't writing, Megan loves watching movies, hiking, and stargazing.