Increasing Teacher Vacancy Rates

by Matt Hurt

The teacher vacancy rate in the Commonwealth has become such a problem that the Virginia Department of Education created a database to track this problem. The Staffing and Vacancy Report found on the Education Workforce Data & Reports page of the VDOE website displays unfilled Virginia educator positions at the state, region, division, and school levels as of October of each year.

This data was first published in 2021 and reported that approximately 3% percent of Virginia’s teaching positions were vacant at that time. Historically, few hires are made after the beginning of the school year, as all willing and eligible potential teachers have already been hired by that point. Anecdotally, I am aware of and have heard many more instances of teachers leaving throughout the year, whereas in the past most would wait until summer to leave the profession.

When one compares the October 2021 teacher vacancy rates to the 2022 Standards of Learning (SOL) pass rates at the division level, that seemingly insignificant teacher vacancy rate statistically accounted for 26% of the variability in division SOL pass rates that year. In October 2022, the teacher vacancy rate across Virginia increased 26% percent to almost a 4% teacher vacancy rate. Given this increase, it is reasonable to believe that this problem will more significantly and negatively impact student outcomes this year than last.

Years ago, when I first began teaching it was not a given that a new teacher candidate could graduate college with a full teaching license and immediately gain employment as a full-time teacher. My colleagues and I back in those days typically had to accept employment as a substitute teacher or an instructional aide and prove our mettle prior to being given a teaching contract. Over the years this has not been the case as competition for teaching positions has diminished significantly due to fewer prospective teachers going into teacher education programs.

Divisions are now hiring folks who are provisionally licensed, as they don’t have access to fully endorsed candidates. Some divisions are actively recruiting from outside Virginia to fill their open positions, and some even recruit from outside our country. Despite all of these efforts, we still can’t fill all of our teaching positions.

Each spring, the Comprehensive Instructional Program brings together teams of teachers from participating divisions to review and update instructional materials for the next school year. So far this spring, more than 600 teachers have participated in these meetings. This year, in an effort to better understand the teacher vacancy problem, teachers were asked why this problem has gotten worse in recent years. In each of these groups, the same reasons are given — salary, student concerns, and lack of support.

First, teachers report that many of their colleagues who have left the profession in the past two years have accepted more lucrative employment outside of education. It seems that the current labor market now provides teachers with alternatives they’ve not had in the past. Not only do they report teachers leaving for significantly higher salaries, but that those jobs are less stressful than teaching.

Along these same lines, it is important to see how Virginia teacher salaries align with other states. For as long as the data has been tracked, Virginia teacher salaries have been lower than the national average. However, when the average teacher salary is compared to the average household income (which could be considered a proxy of a state’s ability to pay for public services such as education), Virginia is the least lucrative state in which to be a teacher. For example, the average household income in New York is only $199 more per year than in Virginia, yet New York teachers on average bring home almost $33,000 more per year than do Virginia teachers.

Even when controlling for the cost of living index (household income and teacher salaries) in each state, Virginia is still the least lucrative in which to teach.

The General Assembly did include a 10% raise for teachers in the current biennium budget — five% for the 2022-2023 school year and the remaining 5% for the 2023-2024 school year. However, this increase has not outpaced inflation, and Virginia teachers (based on average beginning teacher salary) faced a de facto pay cut of almost 3% from August 2019 to August 2022 based on the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation rate calculation. As of February 2023, this de facto pay cut increased to more than 4%. Unfortunately, private businesses can respond more quickly to labor market forces and many former teachers have taken advantage of this fact.

Second, teachers noted significant concerns with students. Teachers report that students are much more likely to display negative behaviors now than they did prior to the pandemic. These behaviors include lack of effort, defiance, and sometimes outright belligerence. Coupled with behaviors are concerns that many students are significantly behind in their learning due to the fact that when their schools were closed, no one at home made sure that they participated in virtual instruction. In essence, these students, when left to their own devices, found much more engaging activities in which to invest their time than their schoolwork. Many more students don’t have the prerequisite knowledge they need in order to succeed with grade level work.

If you ever have had the opportunity to really learn what motivates teachers, you would likely have found that the salary they earn from the profession is not sufficient motivation to keep them in the field. Most of these folks also have derived great satisfaction from helping students progress in their learning. The negative behaviors and lack of prerequisite knowledge has significantly diminished teachers’ feeling of self-efficacy, and this has likely further reduced the incentive to keep them in the profession.

Third, teachers report that they feel less supported than in the past. They note a decline in support generally, including from administrators, parents, the general public, politicians, etc. Many teachers have stated that their administrators are doing all they can, but they’re overwhelmed as well. In general, they feel that they’re not being as successful as they would like to be, and they regularly hear this from a variety of folks. Their feeling is that if they’re not making a difference, and there are more lucrative opportunities elsewhere, why should they continue to be a teacher?

In conclusion, most teachers report that salary is the most overarching concern. The fact that they are expected to do more with less pay (controlling for inflation) coupled with the fact that there are other, more lucrative opportunities is causing more people to leave the field and fewer folks to enter the profession. Given this situation, Virginia has a few options to explore. First, teacher salaries could be increased to be competitive with other options. Second, class size thresholds could be increased, but that would likely increase the rate at which teachers are leaving the profession. Third, we could simply wait for the next economic downturn which has been forecast by many economists. This would likely decrease job opportunities in other fields and encourage more to come back into teaching. Unfortunately, this last option would ensure more kids don’t get what they need and they’ll fall further behind each year. Obviously, the first option is highly preferable.

Matthew Hurt is director of the Comprehensive Instructional Program, a coalition of non-metropolitan school districts.