Where are all the Teachers? Teacher Recruitment, Retention, and the Impact on Equity

Monica Evans, AYPF Policy Research Intern

Who was your favorite teacher? Mine was my 10th grade math teacher. I remember that class for Mr. B’s incredible enthusiasm for the subject paired with his teaching style. He gave us autonomy and responsibility for completing the work and asked us to reason, think critically, and discuss solutions. When I had doubts, he helped lead me to the correct answer instead of lecturing it. I also learned that math did not have to be a gendered subject.

It was easy for Mr. B. to show this dedication as he was teaching a subject in his field. His enthusiasm for math provided him with a strong internal desire to further his students’ knowledge and appreciation in the area that he loved. That year, I excelled in math, and went on to major in economics.

Just one good teacher can change the trajectory of a student’s academic achievements and life-long success. However, current teacher shortages caused by recruitment issues on the front end and retention issues on the back end are making it difficult for teachers to best serve their students. Teachers are oftentimes shuffled around classes and required to teach subjects that are outside their area of expertise.

While the teacher workforce has grown by 400,000 since the recession-era layoffs ended, there are still over 100,000 understaffed classrooms. This is a national problem that has resulted in teacher shortages in all 50 states in at least one subject area. Worst of all, these staffing challenges filter down to negatively impact student outcomes.

To understand what can be done to prevent teacher shortages, we first have to understand the challenges behind teacher recruitment and retention.

Teacher recruitment and retention

There are multiple factors contributing to teacher shortages. On the recruitment side, fewer students are choosing to major in Education. The Learning Policy Institute reported a 35% drop in the number of students studying to be teachers between 2009 and 2014 in the US.

With fewer people entering the teacher workforce, the shortcomings in retention have become more noticeable. Every year, more than 200,000 teachers leave their profession, which can cause a disruptive effect that unhinges the school community and can be especially harmful to low-income schools.

There are multiple contributing factors to teacher turnover, including more teachers being dissatisfied with the profession. The top five reasons teachers are leaving their profession are: 1) lack of support, 2) personal reasons, 3) job dissatisfaction, 4) left for another profession, and 5) dissatisfaction with salary.

Students face the ultimate repercussion of not receiving a quality education because their classes are improperly staffed. Schools with higher teacher turnover rates reportedly have lower student achievement as teachers in unrelated subject areas are asked to fill the open slots.

Who is impacted?

While recruitment and retention issues are present across the teaching profession, the challenges are greatest among teachers of color. Although diversity in the teacher workforce has steadily increased over time, the majority of teachers (80%) are still overwhelmingly white. As the diversity of the student body has increased to 50% students of color, the teacher composition should reflect that to better enable them to provide the necessary support to meet the needs of a diverse student population.

Source: NCES, 2017

Source: NCES, 2017

The rate at which teachers leave the profession is also inconsistent across race, with teachers of color leaving the profession at a higher rate than white teachers. Many teachers of color explain that the reasons for leaving the teacher workforce are due to the lack of support from their school leadership and the lack of opportunities for advancement. Many teachers of color, specifically black teachers, stated that they are seen as the “disciplinarian” and are given unnecessary added duties to their role. Principal demographics reflect that of the teacher composition, showing that nearly 80% of principals are white.

This issue not only affects teachers, but it also has important implications for student outcomes. Increasing teacher diversity is important for all students, but especially students of color. In a study conducted by the Center for American Progress, the report shows the positive impact teachers of color have on students of color and their test scores, graduation rates, and overall emotional wellbeing. Teachers of color have more positive perceptions and expectations of students of color both academically and behaviorally when compared to white teachers. A diverse teacher workforce could support closing the academic achievement gap as students of color are more likely to have higher attendance rates, higher standardized test scores, and fewer behavior infractions when they have at least one teacher of the same race. A report by the Upjohn Institute showed that black male students with at least one black teacher in elementary school are 40% less likely to drop out of high school.

Policy Recommendations

Due to the benefits lower teacher turnover and higher teacher diversity have on student outcomes, it is important to focus on improving teacher recruitment and retention. Policy solutions that target preparation programs, support systems, leadership and working conditions, and salaries can improve the overarching issues of teacher recruitment and retention.

1. Reform teacher preparation programs:

Teachers that are not provided with comprehensive preparation are two to three times more likely to leave the teaching workforce than those who receive more preparation. Teacher preparation should be consistent with high-quality training. In order to retain and recruit a diverse teacher workforce, rigorous coursework and continuous support are necessary. Local pathways with programs like Grow Your Own are only selectively available, but studies have shown they provide deliberate results for diversifying the teacher workforce. The participants in the programs are chosen from the area that needs the teachers and they are provided with the tools and resources they will need to succeed in the local community.

2. Create stronger mentorship programs:

Teachers of color are more likely to teach in lower income schools, resulting in more challenges to finding ongoing high quality mentorship and support due to funding deficiencies. States and districts can help improve the quality of the mentorship programs by ensuring their teachers are assigned a mentor, meet their mentor on a regular basis, and that mentors focus on activities that improve the teacher’s performance as well as the student’s outcomes by analyzing student strengths and needs, observing the classroom, providing feedback, and developing a professional growth plan. These advancements have been found to result in improved teacher retention and also a more equitable distribution of supportive resources to schools.

3. Develop stronger leadership to advance working conditions:

Lack of administrative support is considered one of the main reasons teachers leave the profession. Strong leadership is the backbone of a school and can determine the mentorship, preparation, and recruitment programs that are provided to teachers. According to a Brookings report, diversity among school leaders can perpetuate a more diverse teacher workforce and improve working conditions for current teachers of color. Teachers need principals that continuously support them and encourage them to share their ideas and voices. Improvements in principal preparation programs are key to creating a strong community built on leadership in schools. School leaders must foster collaboration among teachers and make them feel valued.

4. Increase teacher salaries:

According to a Learning Policy Institute report, teachers in the U.S. earn about 20% less than individuals with college degrees in other fields when starting, a salary gap that can grow to 30% by mid-career. Increasing teacher salaries would provide an extra incentive to help recruit a diverse teacher work force. An alternative to increasing salaries while still creating a more competitive work force could include loan forgiveness programs, which can increase diversity by helping individuals afford teacher preparation programs. These programs can also be beneficial for the community as they typically require teachers to stay and work in local schools with the highest needs.

While these solutions may seems expensive, major funds are spent each year on training new teachers. However, improving teacher preparation programs could cut training costs in the long run as teachers would be more likely to remain in their current positions. A report from the Learning Policy Institute states that an urban district spends around $20,000 every time there is a teacher replacement. Increasing funding to improve teacher preparation, support systems, work culture, and salaries can help decrease the high financial cost of teacher turnover.

Ultimately, the most important goal of teacher recruitment and retention is to improve student outcomes. By strengthening the teacher workforce through enhanced teacher preparation and decreased turnover, states and districts have the opportunity to improve student outcomes and academic success.


The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), a nonprofit, nonpartisan professional development organization based in Washington, DC, provides learning opportunities for policy leaders, practitioners, and researchers working on youth and education issues at the national, state, and local levels. AYPF events and publications are made possible by contributions from philanthropic foundations. For a complete list, click here.