Over the last few years, dozens of Ohio school districts have expressed growing concern over teachershortages. The start of the most recent school year was no exception, which is perhaps why the Ohio Departments of Education and Higher Education sponsored regional meetings aimed at gathering ideas for how to improve teacher recruitment and retention efforts.
It’s important to remember that teacher shortages have been making headlines for years. According to research by the Center for American Progress, enrollment in teacher-preparation programs nationally fell by more than one-third from 2010 to 2018, with Ohio posting a decline of nearly 50 percent. Ohio was one of nine states where the drop totaled more than 10,000 prospective teachers. State data also indicate that, as is the case with public school enrollment, the number of public school teachers has mostly declined over the last decade; Ohio reported having 99,682 teachers in 2020, compared to approximately 111,172 in 2010.
To make matters even more complicated, teacher shortages vary from place to place. A recent paper published by Brown University’s Annenberg Institute for School Reform uses teacher vacancy data from Tennessee to create a framework for “understanding and predicting” teacher shortages in states, regions, districts, and schools. The findings indicate that staffing issues are “highly localized,” which makes it possible for teacher shortages and surpluses to exist simultaneously—and explains why some districts and schools are struggling to staff classrooms while others aren’t.
For Ohio, pinpointing where shortages exist is crucial. Detailed data on staffing shortages (and surpluses where they exist) would help policymakers craft short- and long-term strategies to bolster the teacher pipeline, allow researchers to track changes over time, and aid teacher preparation programs in identifying where they should beef up recruitment efforts. If Ohio leaders don’t know where shortages are the most significant and how they have (or haven’t) changed over time, it’s much more difficult to create effective policy solutions.
Unfortunately, statewide data on teacher vacancies don’t exist in a single, easily accessible place. Districts track vacancies so they know which positions to fill, but they aren’t required to report those data to the state. They also aren’t required to track or report attrition or retention data, or gather feedback on why teachers choose to leave or stay. That means if there are significant numbers of teachers across Ohio leaving the profession, we don’t know why. We can make reasonable guesses. Research indicates that working conditions have a strong influence on teachers’ employment decisions, and it’s no secret that better pay would go a long way toward keeping educators in classrooms. But we just don’t know for sure. And while federal data can shed some additional light on school staffing issues, the information is not detailed enough to point Ohio toward state-specific strengths and weaknesses.
To truly tackle teacher shortage issues in the Buckeye State, we need more and better data. A good place to start would be taking a page out of North Carolina’s book and compiling an annual report about the state of the teaching profession. Such a report could include data on teacher vacancies, attrition, and mobility, all of which could be disaggregated by region, district, grade level, and subject area. We could even look at shortages by teacher experience level and teacher demographics. Collecting these data and publishing them annually would give state leaders the ability to track trends over time, and would help pinpoint potential problem areas to head-off future teacher shortages. It could also provide additional insight into the state’s efforts to diversify the profession, which should be a critical priority going forward.
To get the pulse of the current situation, though, state leaders should consider commissioning a statewide retention survey. This survey would give Ohio teachers who leave the profession an opportunity to express their thoughts on a wide variety of issues that impact satisfaction and, in turn, retention. Such issues could include salary, health and retirement benefits, day-to-day working conditions (things like school culture, student discipline, and support from administrators), and the quality and quantity of professional development opportunities. Like the annual data publication proposed above, these survey results could be organized into a report that’s publicly available and easily accessible. State leaders could even hire a third-party organization that specializes in teacher policy to analyze the results and identify a handful of recommendations that districts and the state could immediately implement in an effort to improve retention.
The bottom line is that, if Ohio wants to tackle its teacher shortages, state and local leaders need to understand the breadth and depth of the problem. They can’t do that without easily comparable data from all public schools and feedback from the field, so obtaining those data should be a top priority for lawmakers during the upcoming budget season.