Trendbook Excerpt: What’s Behind the Teacher Shortage

This is adapted from the Workforce Outlook in the 2023-2024 Trendbook, available in the NAIS Bookstore.

By Hilary LaMonte, vice president of Data and Analysis for School Leadership (DASL) at NAIS, and Amada Torres, vice president of studies, research, and insights

Researchers in the United States have been sounding alarm bells about a teacher shortage, driven in part by a shrinking teacher pipeline but also by cultural changes. Three factors have been especially influential. 

A decline in education majors. While more Americans than ever are graduating with bachelor’s degrees, the number of graduates from education programs has been declining for many years. The U.S. Department of Education reported that postsecondary institutions granted more than 2 million bachelor’s degrees in 2020-2021, representing a 146% increase from the numbers recorded 50 years ago. However, while education was once the most popular field for a bachelor’s degree, making up a fifth of all conferred degrees in 1970-1971, it has dropped drastically over the years. In 2000-2001, just 8% of the degrees were in education, and by 2021, it had dropped further, to 4%.

The Teacher Pipeline is Narrowing

A recent report by the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE) found that the steepest declines in the number of degrees and certificates occurred in specialties that have some of the greatest need for instructors: a 44% decrease in foreign language education, a 27% decrease in science and mathematics education, and a 4% decrease in special education. 

A drop in the number of participants in teacher preparation programs that lead to licensing. The same AACTE report found that between the 2008-2009 and the 2018-2019 academic years, the number of people completing teacher preparation programs[1] declined by more than a third. Traditional teacher preparation programs saw the largest decline at 35%. But alternative programs—designed for people with work experience who want to switch to a teaching career or advance their careers in education without returning to school full time—experienced drops in the number of participants, too.

Moreover, the percentage of individuals who enrolled and completed a teaching preparation program decreased from 41.2% of all enrollees in 2014-2015 to 26.9% in 2020-2021. While the percentage for 2020-2021 was a slight increase from 2019-2020, the trend since 2014-2015 shows fewer people completing these programs. 

Even for independent schools that don’t require an education degree or a teaching certificate, the shrinking teacher pipeline may well be a significant factor in recruitment and retention of teachers in the future. 

Diminishing prestige. Researchers and educators also point to a cultural change that has made the profession less attractive: a long decline in Americans’ respect for teaching. Interest in the teaching profession among high school seniors and college freshmen has fallen 38% since 2010—a total decline of 50% since the 1990s, the lowest level in the last 50 years. In September 2022, NORC, an independent social research organization at the University of Chicago, found that just 18% of Americans would encourage their child or another young person to become a K-12 teacher, and 44% said they were not at all likely to do so. Respondents cited inadequate pay, insufficient school resources, and large workloads as the top three barriers that prevent education from being a desirable field.

These trends may contribute to the difficulties school leaders report with finding enough teacher candidates to fill their openings. The U.S. Department of Education found that in the fall of 2022, 45% of public schools were operating with at least one teaching vacancy. And independent schools were not immune to this challenge. 

The Trendbook, NAIS’s annual guide to issues affecting independent schools, includes research, data, Strategic Questions, Action Steps, and Resources. Read about additional trends in enrollment, financial aid, leadership, learning and teaching, and more in the 2023-2024 Trendbook, available in the NAIS Bookstore.