As the 2022-2023 school year got underway, there was a flood of coverage about a teacher shortage crisis. According to the dominant narrative, school districts were hemorrhaging teachers and struggling to find replacements. But the recent coverage of the teacher shortage crisis often missed two vital points. Firstly, the problem called the “teacher shortage crisis” is not even a shortage problem at all. The fact is, nationally, there should be more than enough certified teachers. There are roughly 150,000 people completing teacher certification programs a year. But a growing number of teachers are quitting, and a growing number of college graduates are choosing to avoid the profession altogether. This indicates a fundamental problem with the working conditions of the profession, and if something isn’t done about it, the United States will have to rely more and more on contract remote teachers. And secondly, this problem, whatever we call it, is not a new one. Our public school system’s inability (or unwillingness) to recruit, retain, and fairly remunerate high-quality teachers for all schoolchildren constitutes a serious problem. Not only are public school children being failed, but teaching as a profession is becoming gig-ified and exposing teachers to even greater labor precarity than they already face.
In 2019, the Education Policy Institute released a report called ‘The Perfect Storm in the Teacher Labor Market.’ At the time, EPI called the shortage crisis a “perfect storm” and wrote, “The teacher shortage is real, large and growing, and worse than we thought.” Unsurprisingly, more than three years of a pandemic and the growing politicization of schooling have failed to reverse that trend. One recent study estimates the number of nationwide teacher vacancies at 36,000 with another 163,000 positions filled by “underqualified” teachers. And it looks likely to get worse. According to a survey by the National Education Association, 55 percent of its members are ready to leave teaching earlier than planned. That number is up from 37 percent the previous year. As attrition continues to rise and as the number of newly credentialed teachers declines, the profession is indeed headed for trouble.
Teacher vacancies have always been more concentrated in hard-to-staff districts and content areas. High-poverty schools in rural and urban districts, for example, have a hard time attracting and retaining teachers. Special education, foreign language, English as a Second Language, and secondary math and science are also difficult subjects to staff. Since the pandemic, these challenges have persisted and also started to seep into a wider range of schools.
Dr. Bridget Weiss, the superintendent of the Juneau School District in Alaska, explained via email how the number and nature of teacher vacancies have changed. “We have for several years had trouble filling special education teaching positions. That has gotten more difficult, and now the problem has spilled over into regular education teaching positions as well.” She added, “No longer are we looking to hire the best teacher for our students. We are hiring the available teacher, whether they would be competitive in a different ‘market’ or not.”
A survey conducted by the AASA, the School Superintendents Association, found that nearly a third of respondents were facing greater vacancies at the start of the 2022-2023 school year compared to last year. In the past, schools and districts have tried to fill vacancies in a number of ways, including hiring international teachers, lowering requirements for who can teach, or relying on long-term substitutes. None of these are ideal in terms of providing high-quality instruction to the neediest students, and in the case of international teachers and substitute teachers, the practice can be highly exploitative. Substitute teachers make as little as $20 a day in some places and are at-will employees. Meanwhile, some have called the use of international teachers a form of trafficking.
This year, after COVID prompted a widespread unplanned experiment in remote learning, more schools and districts are considering a new approach to filling vacancies. They can now hire remote teachers. A growing number of education technology or edtech companies are eager to help struggling schools and districts fill their vacancies. Elevate K-12, Stride Learning, and iTutor are just a few examples of such for-profit companies. Some of these companies have provided virtual teachers before COVID, while others were online learning platforms that began providing virtual teachers in response to growing vacancies.
The model varies somewhat from company to company, but generally, it relies on an educational support staff person to monitor a classroom of students while a certified teacher provides virtual instruction on a contract basis. Unlike with a full-time teacher, districts do not have to pay the cost of a full-time salary or benefits. Some of the companies which hire virtual teachers as full-time employees offer benefits, but many of them like Elevate and iTutor hire teachers as contract employees. Meanwhile, the districts only have to pay for the hours that the teacher is online with students. So if a school only needs one period of Spanish a day, they can hire one through a company like iTutor, rather than a full-time teacher. That teacher may teach Spanish to several classes across different schools, five days a week, or they may only teach a few hours a week. Meanwhile, the educational support staff, who are key to making this model viable, often make poverty wages. Support staff titles and roles vary from district to district, but according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median wage for teaching assistants in 2021 was just over $29,000 a year. Support staff are, like teachers, around 80 percent women but are more likely to be non-white than teachers (40 percent versus 20 percent).
Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, is not surprised by the trend. “Any time there’s an issue in education, the tech companies decide it can be solved by more tech and less teachers,” Weingarten said via phone.
Elevate K-12 is one of the edtech companies eager to help. Like the teacher vacancy problem that Elevate offers to solve, Elevate pre-dates the pandemic. However, demand for their service has exploded recently. CEO Shaily Baranwal told me that Elevate doubled the number of schools they served this year compared to the 2021-2022 school year. “We could have done more,” Baranwal said, “but we really wanted to make sure that as we scale the company, we maintain quality.” But there are many debates in education about how to measure “quality” and who gets to decide on that measure. For now, quality is generally measured by the state based on standardized test scores. In the case of Elevate, public data on learning outcomes from Elevate teachers is not available. Elevate recently raised $40 million in its Series C round of funding.
In past years, Elevate exclusively served high-poverty rural and urban schools, but according to Baranwal, “[the vacancy crisis] is all over this year. We have districts in the past that we have reached out to them, and they said we don’t have vacancies, and this year we have massive contracts with them because they finally came around and said if we don’t start using a tool like Elevate right now there’s no end to the problem.”
But while edtech companies can provide schools with certified teachers, there is limited research supporting the effectiveness of remote teaching on student learning. Recent national and state test scores show that the pandemic severely disrupted learning for students, but there is not a clear link between remote learning and the declines in test scores. The more likely cause of the findings was the catastrophic loss of life and disruption to students’ social, emotional, and physical well-being. Hundreds of thousands of children lost a parent or caregiver. Young people were isolated from friends and their communities. Many young people’s parents and caregivers lost their jobs or were forced to work in unsafe environments. All of these stressors undoubtedly impacted student learning.
Still, the general consensus among teachers and families is that remote learning totally sucks. As Boston teacher Mariel Norris summed it up, “Teachers and administrators … exerted themselves to an extreme degree for such little gain on students’ end.” In spite of those heroic efforts, students were “deprived of an actual education by any honest measure.”
Baranwal is (unsurprisingly) critical of that perspective. According to Baranwal, Elevate’s platform is designed specifically for teaching. Unlike video conferencing platforms like Zoom, Google Meet, and Teams, Elevate has certain teaching tools built in. In contrast to pandemic remote learning, Elevate teachers are teaching to a class of students sitting in one room together, allowing for better participation and interaction between students. On top of that, Baranwal says that Elevate’s teachers are highly trained and effective at using Elevate’s specific curriculum. Baranwal argues these factors combine to provide a better-than-average remote learning experience.
But teaching and learning are about much more than academic progress. Teachers are more than deliverers of instruction. They are role models, mentors, advocates, mediators, and more. The myriad ways teachers support the social-emotional learning of students are more important now than ever. Providing that support virtually is difficult.
In Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks, the scholar and activist, wrote, “As a classroom community, our capacity to generate excitement is deeply affected by our interest in one another, in hearing one another’s voices, in recognizing one another’s presence.” In other words, teaching is about cultivating relationships. This happens through a teacher’s warm yet demanding presence during a lesson, but also through the countless interactions that happen outside of instructional time.
I spent 12 years as a public school teacher in New York City myself. The last year and a half of that time, I taught remotely. While I eventually found ways to adapt my pedagogy to virtual teaching, I never found a way to replicate the social-emotional component of my job. Finding ways to truly hear each other’s voices and to recognize one another’s presences virtually was an enduring challenge. At the end of the year, I know my students felt that I cared, but we still felt like strangers to each other compared to my relationships with my in-person students.
Relying on remote contract teachers is unlikely to provide students with the stability they need academically or social-emotionally. And some parents are understandably concerned. “Instead of locking down and getting teachers in these schools, it’s like ‘OK, we’ll just put them on a computer screen,’” Torrane Richmond, a parent in Burlington, North Carolina told her local news station.
Weiss does not currently rely on remote teachers in Juneau, but the district does contract out some teaching positions. According to Weiss, “These teachers are not invested in our community and seldom are used or stay more than one year, so there is constant turnover.” This lowers the teaching quality because with constant churn, “understanding student needs and relationships with families” is difficult.
Weingarten echoed Weiss’s concern about contract teachers: “You just don’t have the same nesting; you don’t have the same connectivity. We need to create real long-standing relationships that people can rely on. That’s what kids need.”
Akua Ducard is a veteran teacher based in Atlanta, Georgia. In 2019, a student stole from her, and this led her to question her desire to work with students. She decided to work as a contract remote teacher for a company called iTutor. During the 2021 school year, she co-taught a classroom at a charter school in Brooklyn, New York, and then continued the following school year at a Bronx charter school within the network.
Ducard’s experience can tell us a lot about why teachers are leaving the brick-and-mortar classroom for the digital one, as well as the limitations of this model. Ducard sees remote teaching positions as “places where teachers are finding ways to reinvigorate their teaching and to just find that passion again because they could be more in control of the situation again.”
But Ducard raised several concerns about the viability of remote teaching as a replacement for in-person teachers. “There’s so much that you’re removed from when you’re not in the physical room,” she said.
On top of that, not all learners have the same needs. While some students can thrive using remote learning, there are others for whom it fails. Some students with special needs, as well as students learning English as a new language, need the best instruction possible. In many cases, remote learning is woefully inadequate.
Ducard’s ability to provide special education services to her students relies on their willingness to participate. As much as Ducard tries to do her job well, sometimes students are still left out of instruction if her in-person colleague is unable to manage them effectively. “I feel like I could be a lot more effective in person than just being a head on a computer that they can basically close [the laptop on] or just not respond to.” As a result, Ducard says, “Not all of the students who should get services are.”
So while edtech companies promise to bring high-quality instruction to the students with the greatest needs, it’s not clear that they can. And while the number of schools and types of schools facing shortages is expanding, it’s hard to imagine wealthy suburban schools are among them. At this time, for example, according to Baranwal, all of the school districts Elevate serves have a high percentage of low-income students.
Ducard believes that remote teaching models can be effective but worries that some schools “are actually not putting enough thought and not putting enough support and structures in place to make it work.” In other words, contract remote teachers may be logging on to teach in environments just as dysfunctional as the ones they left. Lack of administrative support and problems with school culture are among the top school-level factors cited by teachers for leaving.
But what happens to the teachers who stay? According to Jeffrey Katzman, CEO of Core Learning Exchange, a company that aims to bring virtual Career and Technical Education instructors to schools, “There’s a little bit of resentment that might pop up if one teacher’s a remote teacher and getting paid an equivalent amount of money or maybe a little more.” In Ducard’s case, while she does not have benefits, she makes more teaching virtually than she would as a teacher in Georgia.
Meanwhile, at the school and district level, the arrival of gig teachers threatens the bargaining power of full-time, in-person teachers. If schools and districts can find a certified teacher from outside the district or state to fill a vacancy and not pay them a full-time salary or benefits, what is the likelihood these schools are going to invest in systemic changes to attract and retain teachers, let alone respond to complaints about low pay, overcrowded classrooms, or lack of air conditioning?
The growth of contract remote teaching gigs could ultimately create more vacancies in the same districts these companies are proposing to help. A look at job postings for other companies like Edmentum and Stride Learning is a Who’s Who of red states with low teacher pay. At the time of writing this article, these companies are hiring for special education, Spanish, and science teaching positions in Alabama, Kansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Utah.
Baranwal wants the story of Elevate to be one of an innovator helping to solve a persistent problem in K-12 education. “The faster we grow, the faster we can solve the teacher shortage problem,” Baranwal told me. But it’s just as likely that companies like Elevate are serving as a Band-Aid to systemic problems, if not exacerbating them, and profiting in the process. This is a continuation of a long pattern in education. Public schools are under-funded and fail to meet the needs of all their students. Rather than addressing the lack of resources, neoliberalism offers solutions such as charter schools, Teach for America, and for-profit edtech interventions. In many cases, these “solutions” enrich a few, and none of these ultimately address the structural inequities plaguing public education.
Most experts agree that training, attracting, and retaining a highly-qualified teaching workforce, particularly in hard-to-staff subject areas and schools, will require a meaningful investment. There are a lot of different ways that money could be spent, but the most obvious starting point would be with teacher salaries, particularly for hard-to-staff subject areas.
One success story in this area comes from Hawaiʻi. When faced with a dire shortage of special education teachers, the state began offering a $10,000 yearly bonus to special education teachers. As a result, they cut their shortage in half.
Fort Stockton is a school district in rural Texas that has historically struggled with teacher vacancies. They recently raised their salaries far above the state-wide average and offered heavily subsidized housing. In 2022, as more districts struggled to hire enough teachers, Fort Stockton did not.
Teachers surveyed by the NEA also listed salary increases as their highest priority solution for addressing educator burnout. But they also overwhelmingly supported increasing mental health support for students, hiring more teachers, hiring more support staff, and decreasing the paperwork load. These policies mirror proposals from the American Federation of Teachers’ July 2022 report on the teacher shortage crisis, which also included lowering class sizes and ending the over-emphasis on standardized testing.
In other words, the solutions to the teacher vacancy crisis are pretty straightforward. Pay teachers more, and make the workload more manageable. As Ducard told me, “I do think that [remote teaching] is going to continue to grow because I think a lot of teachers are fed up with the environments that they work in.”
A recent survey conducted by the think tank RAND Corporation affirms that working conditions in schools are driving burnout. The survey gathered data from public school teachers and principals and compared them to answers from other working adults. Researchers found that educators were twice as likely as other workers to experience “frequent job-related stress.”
But improving working conditions will also require us to address the ongoing bipartisan divestment from public education. Democrats pay more lip service to the value of public schools and teachers, but the commitment to charter schools, standardized testing, and even vouchers has enjoyed support from both parties. There are some signs of shifts within the Democratic Party, but the right-wing attack on public schools and teachers has ramped up.
COVID has strained an already stressed workforce. Then the politicization began. Educators in RAND’s survey were more likely than workers in other professions to say that politicized issues such as COVID safety measures were sources of stress in their jobs. Educators also experienced backlash to teaching about race or racism.
For the right, mobilizing white resentment against public schools serves a dual purpose. It can drive voter turnout, but it can also increase support for divestment from public schools. As one of the largest and most valued public investments in the United States, public education has long been a target of conservatives. The obsession with vouchers has been a reliable way to divert funds away from them.
At the same time, the right has had a long-standing vendetta against public school teachers as a largely unionized workforce. More recently, Republicans have tried to undermine the power of teachers by taking away their ability to collectively bargain. Forcing more teachers out of the profession may not be an explicit intention of the right’s current CRT and gender ideology obsession, but it certainly serves their goals. As teacher vacancies rise, it’s easy to see Republican-led states relaxing requirements for certification tests or degrees in order to support the growth of a contract remote teaching workforce.
Baranwal reiterated several times that Elevate is not seeking to replace qualified, certified teachers. Elevate teachers are a much better alternative, according to Baranwal, than long-term substitutes or other uncertified options. But if schools don’t address the root causes of the teacher vacancy crisis, the number of certified teachers leaving the classroom will continue to grow, making edtech companies an increasingly vital option. If more districts rely on remote contract teachers, we’ll have teachers who are more disconnected from their students and less equipped to bargain for their needs and the needs of their students.
But Baranwal and others see this as an inevitable future. “We don’t go back [to] finding taxis,” Baranwal told me. “Nobody says, ‘Oh, I don’t like Uber now. I’m going to find a taxi.’ We just evolve our thinking. That’s what [a] growth mindset is about. It’s time for districts and schools to open their thinking.” For Baranwal, the concept of trying to find an in-person teacher for every student is obsolete. But what is the cost to kids and the teaching profession of just giving up on in-person teachers for all?
As a former public school teacher, I find the Uber-ification of teaching to be a disturbing—but apt—analogy. Rather than investing in public transportation or walkable cities, we’ve created a massive gig workforce to get people around. Uber hasn’t truly solved the problem of affordable, accessible transportation, but it has created new problems in the process. Similarly, we claim to value education for every child in this country. But policymakers have had numerous opportunities to invest properly in public teachers and schools. Instead they have opted repeatedly for cheap fixes that often exacerbate educational inequity.
Can we change course before it’s too late? It will take common sense and political willpower, two things in short supply. But it’s possible. The 2022 PDK Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools found that respondents’ support of their community school was at a 48-year high. But the number who expressed interest in having their child work as a public school teacher was an all-time low. Americans believe in the importance of high-quality public schools, and they know we’re not doing enough to support those responsible for realizing this promise. While there is a partisan split, Americans agree that teachers deserve higher salaries.
In addition to these commonsense strategies that target teachers specifically, a broader left agenda would make the profession more sustainable. Cutting the military budget and properly taxing the wealthy could provide more than enough money for public schools and the social welfare system. If students were growing up in healthy, well-resourced communities, there wouldn’t be such a great strain on schools to counter the effects of poverty and social dysfunction. Teachers wouldn’t be burning out at such an astonishing rate.
In this way, the fight to save teaching from the gig economy is no different than the fight for workers’ rights more broadly. While the gap between our nation’s rhetoric surrounding public education and actual investment is especially glaring, all work is vital. Teachers—as well as warehouse workers, nurses, taxi and other ride service drivers, and fruit pickers—deserve proper compensation and good working conditions.
Our society doesn’t need teaching to join the gig economy. We don’t need more for-profit fixes for education. These are not paths to an excellent and equitable education system. Instead, if we really want to ensure a high-quality, in-person teacher for every student, we should make teaching a sustainable career. We can start by paying educators (including childcare workers and paraprofessionals) what they’re worth and giving schools and their communities the resources they need.