The Mathematics and Science Teacher Shortage Fact and Myth

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Few educational issues receive more attention than the need to ensure that all elementary and secondary classrooms are staffed with qualified teachers. A host of studies, commissions, and national reports announce that severe teacher shortages are confronting our elementary and secondary schools. These shortfalls, we are told, are primarily due to two converging demographic trends—increasing student enrollments and the retirement of a “graying” teaching force. Shortfalls of teachers, the argument continues, are forcing many school systems to resort to lower-ing standards to fill teaching openings, inevitably resulting in high levels of underqualified teachers and lower school performance.

Researchers and policy analysts have also stressed that shortfalls affect some teaching fields more than others. Mathematics and science, in particular, have often been targeted as fields suffering most from shortfalls. In recent years, concern over shortages of math and science teachers and their impact on the state of math and science education have reached new heights. High-profile reports from groups such as John Glenn’s Commission on Mathematics and Science Teaching for the 21st century, the National Academy of Sciences, and the National Research Council have all directly tied teacher shortages to the quality of math and science education and in turn to the future well-being of the economy and indeed, the survival of the nation.

In response, a wide range of initiatives have been implemented to recruit new candidates into teaching. Among these are career-changer programs, such as “troops-to-teachers,” designed to entice professionals into mid- career switches to teaching, and Peace Corps-like programs, such as Teach for America, designed to lure the “best and brightest” into under-staffed schools. Many states have instituted alternative certification programs, in which college graduates can postpone some or all of their formal education training and begin teaching immediately. Some school districts have resorted to recruiting teaching candidates from overseas. Financial incentives, such as signing bonuses, student loan forgiveness, housing assistance, and tuition reimbursement have all been insti-tuted to aid recruitment. These initiatives have often been targeted to mathematics and science. In his 2006 State of the Union address, for in-stance, President Bush specifically called for the recruitment of 30,000 new mathematics and science teachers.

Over the past decade and a half, I have used the best national data available to look closely at issues of teacher supply, demand, and quality. More recently I have focused on the case of mathematics and science teachers in particular. The story the data tell is provocative. Problems of teacher supply and demand indeed are among the most important issues in schools, but they are also among the least under-stood. A close look at the data shows that the conventional wisdom concerning teacher shortages is largely a case of a wrong diagnosis and a wrong prescription, and that while the above policy efforts may often be worthwhile, they alone will not solve the teacher-staffing problems schools are facing.

The data show that, consistent with the conventional wisdom on teacher shortages, demand for teachers has steadily increased. Over the past two decades, student enrollments have increased, most schools have had teacher job openings, and the size of the elementary and secondary teaching workforce has increased. More importantly the data document that substantial numbers of schools have experi-enced difficulties finding qualified candidates to fill openings, especially in math and science.

While it is true that student enrollments are increasing, however, the data show that the demand for new teachers is primarily due to teacher turnover—teachers retiring from or leaving their teaching jobs each year. The image that the data suggest is one of a “revolving door”—an occupation in which there are relatively large flows in, through, and out of schools. Moreover, while it is true that teacher retire-ments are increasing, the overall amount of turnover accounted for by retirement is relatively minor when compared to that resulting from other causes, such as job dissatisfaction and teachers seeking to pursue better jobs or other careers. Indeed, teaching is an occupation that loses many of its new members very early in their careers; between 40 and 50% leave the field altogether in the first five years on the job. Four factors stand out as important to the high rates of teacher turnover: low salaries, lack of support from school administration, student discipline problems, and lack of teacher input into school decision-making.

Of course, some teacher turnover is unavoidable and even beneficial. Indeed, effective organizations and businesses usually both promote and benefit from a limited degree of employee turnover by eliminating low-caliber performers and bringing in “new blood.” But high levels of teacher turnover are not cost free. Among those who study employee turnover in business organizations, it has long been recognized that high rates of employee departure incur substantial training and recruitment costs and are both cause and effect of pro-ductivity problems.

The data also show that while this picture applies to a wide range of teaching fields, some important differences exist. Math and science teachers have about the same rates of turnover as other teachers. But unlike, for instance, the case of either English or social studies, the educational system does not enjoy an overwhelming surplus of newly prepared math and science teaching candidates. The new supply of math and science teachers in the pipeline is more than sufficient to cover the losses of teachers due to retirement. But unlike in fields such as English or social studies, the new supply of math and science teachers is more strained to cover losses of teachers due to pre-retirement turnover.

For example, the data indicate that more than 45,000 math and science teachers left teaching just after the 1999–2000 school year. Only about 11,000 of these departures were due to retirement. More than twice as many of these teachers—almost 24,000—indicated that job dissatisfaction was a major factor in their departures. Moreover, the data show that replacing pre-retirement attrition losses linked to job dis-satisfaction accounted for more than two-thirds of the new math and science teachers produced that year. In other words, if dissatisfaction-related attrition was sharply curtailed, demand for new hires would also sharply decrease.

In short, unlike fields such as English and social studies, the fields of math and science do not have a large “cushion” of new teaching candidates produced each year. In math and science, a tighter balance exists between new teacher supply and demand, leaving these fields more vulnerable to the consequences of turnover.

Hence the data indicate that the math and science teacher staffing problems that plague many schools are not, contrary to conven-tional wisdom, simply a result of shortages—in the sense that too few new math and science teachers are produced—but rather are also a result of too many existing teachers leaving long before retirement. This has large implications for fixing the problem. It means that so-lutions must not focus solely on teacher recruitment, but also on teacher retention. In plain terms, if the nation were able to recruit 30,000 new math and science teachers, as President Bush pledged in his State of the Union speech, that alone will not solve the problem if more than 45,000 math and science teachers simultaneously leave teaching. The image that comes to mind is a bucket rapidly losing water because of holes in the bottom. Pouring more water into the bucket will not be the answer if the holes are not first patched.

All of this suggests that schools are not simply victims of inexorable demographic trends and that there is a significant role for the man-agement of schools in both the genesis of and solution to school-staffing problems. The data suggest that improvements in the conditions of the teaching job, such as increased support for teachers, higher teacher salaries, reduction of student misbehavior, and enhanced faculty input into school decision making, would all contribute to lower rates of turnover and in turn, diminish school-staffing problems, undermine the so-called teacher shortage, and hence, ultimately, aid the performance of schools.

For more information on the NSTA Press® book Teaching Science in the 21st Century, which inspired this series, visit For further reading on this topic, visit the author’s web page at or see the following.


Ingersoll, R. 2003. Is there really a teacher shortage? The Consortium for Policy Research in Education, University of Pennsylvania.

Ingersoll, R. 2003. Who controls teachers’ work?: Power and accountability in America’s schools.Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Ingersoll, R. and D. Perda. 2006. What the national data tell us about the math and science teacher shortage. Paper presented at the NCTAF Symposium on the Scope and Consequences of K–12 Science and Mathematics Teacher Turnover, October 2006, Wingspread Conference Center, Racine, WI.