GREENSBORO, N.C. (WGHP) – You’ve heard no doubt about the drastic need for teachers on a national scale, which usually gets an A-plus for attention. What you may not know is that those shortages have led states to hire thousands of underqualified teachers.

And North Carolina is hiring more than most states, although state officials have a deep explanation for that.

These data came to light in a new research paper on teacher shortages, developed by three faculty members from Kansas State University and the University of Illinois and published by the Annenberg Institute for Education Reform at Brown University.

Their “systematic examination of reports of teacher shortages in the United States” reveals that there are an estimated 36,504 full-time teacher positions that are unfilled across the nation, and that number could be as high as 52,800, researchers said.

Those figures were significantly lower than the roughly 300,000 openings reported by the National Education Association and national media, the researchers said. They said the higher estimate includes non-teaching staff members, such as bus drivers and counselors, but the picture of shortages absent from the federal data systems complicates that effort.

They based their work on publicly available data, some of it from 2021-22 but much of it older: 16 states and D.C. in 2021-2022, 10 states in 2020-2021, nine states from 2017 to 2020 and two states from 2014 to 2017. Researchers acknowledge that because of the COVID-19 pandemic some of the data are “out of date,” so the immediate validity of these numbers isn’t known, although all figures are actual.

Their data also were collected from a variety of sources, including a state’s Department of Education or a district Board of Education or news reports. North Carolina’s information is based on news reports accounting for 2020-21.

That research indicated North Carolina has 1,698 openings for teachers – and teachers alone – but in July when WGHP surveyed school districts in the 14 counties of the Piedmont Triad, there were about 1,400 posted openings, about a third of them in the more populous Guilford and Forsyth counties.

North Carolina’s vacancy rate was in the middle-range of those states researched – state officials question the validity of those figures, to read on for more about that – but when researchers looked at what they called “underqualified teachers,” they found a much more significant issue.

North Carolina hired 14,822 underqualified teachers, or about 14.71 per 100 teachers, meaning about 15% of those in classrooms were underqualified, the researchers said.

That total was the third highest of the 50 states – only more populous California (24,029) and Florida (16,585) – reported more, and the per 100 K rate also was third national, behind the outlandish rate in New Hampshire (348.70) and 148.64 in Louisiana.

The researchers described underqualified teachers as being the “state/jurisdiction’s reported teacher positions filled by candidates without being fully certified by the state’s standards (e.g., under irregular, provisional, temporary, or emergency certification, or by long-term substitute contract, etc.), or certified but not in the subject area of their teaching assignment (i.e., out-of-field teachers).”

The researchers also dealt with specialty areas – special education and STEM, to name two – and sought to understand what states wanted and needed and how they filled those positions.

“We are doing a bit of an assumption here, but think that researchers are using the federal In-Field/Out-of-Field report to make that determination,” Blair Rhoades of the NC Department of Public Instruction wrote in response to questions from WGHP. “NCDPI is very strict on how we count ‘qualified’ teachers. Teachers who are issued a permit to teach, emergency, or provisional license are not deemed fully licensed. 

“All these teachers have bachelor’s degrees with a minimum number of credit hours in the subject area. If the licensee has not completed the teacher preparation coursework or testing related to the license area, then we deem them to be out-of-field (or underqualified). “

Rhoades said many of the provisionally licensed teachers are “currently licensed teachers who have added an additional teaching area to their license. We do not count them as fully qualified until they pass the licensure exam related to the license.”

Open positions

Researchers’ data showed that the number of teachers needed in each state fluctuated wildly, with some needing thousands and others, such as Utah, requiring only a handful. Although the District of Columbia is included as sort of a 51st state, some data aren’t known in 13 states, including California, New York and Ohio.

North Carolina’s 1,698 vacancies reported by researchers (for 2020-21) rate at 11.22 vacancies per 10,000 students. The state employs about 100,777 teachers (Rhoades provided a lower figure) to serve an estimated 1.514 million students.

Mississippi and Alabama had by far the greatest need for teachers in the U.S. Mississippi has 3,036 openings, or 68.59 per 10K students. Alabama’s numbers were 3000-plus and 40.84. West Virginia needs 1,000 teachers, or 39.46.

Some other rates to compare to North Carolina’s 11.22 include Tennessee, 12.18; Virginia, 11.35; Florida, 14.2; Georgia, 17.59; South Carolina, 12.23; Kentucky, 12.24; and Maryland, 11.33.

Utah (less than 1), Texas (1.06) and Colorado (2.66) were at the bottom.

On raw numbers, Florida needed nearly 4,000 teachers – DeSantis suggested the number was 9,000 – and Georgia needed 3,112.

But outside of the core four – Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Florida – only Illinois and Arizona had more openings than North Carolina.

“I’m not sure where the researchers are getting their data on vacancies from, but in the 2020-21 State of the Teaching Profession Report, we reported approximately 3,000 vacancies on the 40th instructional day,” Rhoades wrote in the email. “Many of these get resolved as we progress through the school year, so the researchers might have looked at the data in a later part of the school year. 

“Our report indicates that there was a 3.7% state vacancy rate in 2020-21 on the 40th instructional day. From my perspective, vacancies at the beginning of the school year have always been an issue; I’m not sure if we are seeing a difference in the rates or if we are seeing a difference in the reporting.”

Rhoades cited a report to the NC General Assembly that stated, among other issues:

  • North Carolina’s attrition rates “over time has been relatively stable. Our attrition rate typically hovers right around the 8% mark give or take, which equates to between 7,000-8,000 teachers every year. For context, this 7-8K is out of a workforce of about 95,000. “ 
  • The latest data from March 2022 showed an 8.2% attrition rate for the 2020-2021 school year. “This is important because the numbers for the 2020-21 school year show that the state didn’t see a big surge in teachers leaving the classroom, at least in the first 12 months of the pandemic,” Rhoades wrote.
  • “We recognize this data lags and therefore will look different when the report for 2021-22 becomes available (which will be in March of 2023).” 

How to fill openings

That issue of filling openings has come under greater focus recently because Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has suggested his state should hire untrained people, such as veterans (and their spouses), former law enforcement officers and first-responders, to fill classrooms.

His plan does not require a veteran/spouse to have a bachelor’s degree or even specialized training to earn a teaching certificate.

“They said, ‘You can’t just have any old warm body in the classroom.’ Look, as a veteran, I will tell you the people that serve our country are not just some warm body,” DeSantis told the Miami Herald.

In North Carolina, Rhoades said, “Permits to teach and emergency licenses are used to get otherwise qualified applicants into the system while they gain admission to an educator preparation program (one must be both employed by a school district and enrolled in an Educator Preparation Program in order to be issued a Residency License). 

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt (Photo: North Carolina Department of Public Instruction)
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt (Photo: North Carolina Department of Public Instruction)

“The permit to teach and the emergency license are one-year licenses, so the teacher must be making progress toward obtaining the Residency License to continue teaching – they cannot hold those licenses indefinitely. “

Rhoades said that NC DPI monitors all three types of licenses to ensure that districts “are moving their teachers forward in obtaining full state licensure.”

The responses also include details about steps the state is taking to fill openings, including adjusting how teachers are paid and licensed. State Board of Education Chairman Eric Davis and Superintendent Catherine Truitt also have discussed their plans for what Rhoades called “the licensure/compensation draft model.”

Background on the research

This report was created from the project conducted by Tuan D. Nguyen and Chanh B. Lam of Kansas State University and Paul Bruno of Illinois. They said that “recent news and policy reports suggest there are shortages of teachers in many parts of the country, and these shortages are detrimental for students and public education since these positions are either left unfilled or are filled with less qualified or uncertified candidates.

“For our main purpose, we focus on vacant positions in a state, which means these are teaching positions that are left unfilled, even with emergency certification. We take this conservative approach to provide a lower bound on what the teacher shortages look like in the United States.”

They said they looked more precisely at:

  • Teaching positions that are filled by teachers who are certified by irregular, provisional, temporary, or emergency certification.
  • Teaching positions that are filled by teachers who are certified but who are teaching in academic subject areas other than their trained specialty.

Some states, such as California, they wrote, “are likely to have teacher shortages but are able to fill the vacant positions, at least temporarily, with substitute teachers and emergency/provisional certifications. However, current news reports indicate these states are experiencing shortages but provide no specific data on how many positions are left vacant.”