Facing Regional Shortages, U.S. Schools Now Employing 160,000 ‘Underqualified’ Teachers

Parents, experts and traditional teacher preparation programs caution against unchecked growth of emergency and temporary licensing to fill vacancies

Eamonn Fitzmaurice/The 74

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For two years, Annette Anderson, an education professor and mother of three attending Baltimore City Schools, saw a “coming storm” of teacher shortages across the country and the desperation to fill them.

A scholar on education leadership at John Hopkins University, Anderson grew frustrated as district officials stayed quiet about mounting vacancies. Meanwhile, in Maryland, the number of teachers with conditional certifications — good for two years as new teachers gain classroom experience and work toward full licensure — had doubled in under 5 years. Uncertified teachers make up over 13% of Baltimore City Schools’ educator force, the second-highest rate in the state. 

The impact would be catastrophic, Anderson believed, particularly for low-income children. 

“There is a cumulative price for society to pay because we have neglected this issue for far too long. And our most vulnerable students and families will always lose the most…” Anderson said. “We have doomed an entire generation of poor children, because we didn’t care enough to get ahead of a coming storm.” 

New research suggests Anderson’s instincts were right: U.S. schools currently employ at least 163,650 underqualified educators, teachers working without state certification or outside of their subject area. In 2017, at least 109,000 underqualified teachers were estimated to be in classrooms.

The underqualified group comprises roughly 5% of the U.S. teaching force. States with the highest ratios of these hires relative to the student population include Washington, Utah, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New Jersey, North Carolina, Louisiana, Alabama, Florida and Maryland

In the last pre-pandemic school year, nearly a quarter of Louisiana’s teachers were instructing out of their field or uncertified, mostly in math and science.

Black, brown and low-income students are still more likely to be taught by underqualified educators than peers, research shows, despite federal law attempts to protect against this by requiring states receiving Title I funding to make plans to address disparities.

Fueling the rise in uncertified teachers is a dramatic drop in teaching candidates — America lost at least a third in the last decade, with some states facing enrollment declines near 80%. The trickling pipeline of new educators coincided with the growth of an alternative sector — of over 200 organizations countrywide where candidates may not have to take on as much debt or devote as much preparation time to lead classrooms.

“It is actually life and death for many students when they receive an unprepared teacher,” said Jacqueline Rodriguez, vice president of research at the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education. “Their life outcomes are dramatically different and we need to be taking those students … into account when we deprofessionalize the field.” 

Experts further caution against current efforts to fill vacancies with adults who have no experience in schools or with children, who may have completed shortened preparation programs. In Florida, military veterans without degrees can now obtain a 5-year temporary teaching certificate. 

These types of short-term solutions may be appealing in a crisis, but present long-term funding and equity problems. 

“The dilemma becomes a Catch-22: You lower the requirements for entry, you put an unprepared person in a classroom,” Rodriguez said. “They do not feel like they can meet the needs of students in their classroom, and then they depart.”

The churn of unprepared, early career educators who had little intention of becoming career teachers, or may not feel set up to succeed, can strain local budgets and make it so that students don’t benefit from experienced teachers, she added.

Even in states that seem to be managing staffing challenges well, numbers can be deceiving. Utah, for instance, appears to have bucked teacher preparation enrollment declines, seeing the most growth of any state from 2010 to 2018. But Mary Burbank, University of Utah’s associate dean for teacher education, thinks the increase is not an indicator of a boom in quality teachers. 

A “floodgate” of underqualified teacher candidates opened in 2016, Burbank said, when Utah made it possible for any college graduate to teach via alternative certification programs — so long as they eventually pass licensure exams. Last school year, the state had one of the highest ratios of underqualified educators to students in the nation, according to researchers at Kansas State University and the University of Illinois tracking the population. 

“There’s tension there… I don’t know that anyone’s thrilled,” Burbank said. “We want a teacher’s classroom ready on day one. We don’t want the classroom to be a testing ground.”

In Arizona, where over 5,000 teaching positions are vacant or filled by underqualified staff, districts have taken to hiring student teacher candidates in their senior year of college to fill vacancies. Teachers colleges, unhappy with the practice, have asked districts to stop. 

“We’re saying you can’t put these people in classrooms by themselves — you’re doing them a disservice. They’re not going to stay. And you’re doing their learners a disservice,” said Carole Basile, dean of the teachers college at Arizona State University. 

The toll that underqualified and inexperienced teachers has on students is also a key concern for parents like Anderson. A child with their heart set on becoming a doctor, for instance, could lose foundational years of STEM learning: 

“By sixth grade your science teacher is a long term substitute [and] when you try to take a magnet test for your district high school … your composite score doesn’t make the cut. You take vocational courses instead, where the teachers are also not highly qualified. So you don’t quite make the grade to pass the state assessment to graduate,” Anderson told The 74. 

Researchers told The 74 the fascination around shortages ignores a critical consideration when it comes to making quality education a reality for all students. 

“‘Is there really a shortage, because schools are fully staffed?’ What they should be asking is, ‘who are being staffed in the schools?’” Rodriguez said. “The question needs to be why are states allowing people who are unprepared to be in classrooms when they could be working towards short- and long-term solutions to addressing shortages, so we don’t have to be talking about this in 2030.” 

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