What does Missouri’s teacher shortage really look like?

Over the past few years, Missourians have gotten a better understanding of the term “shortage.” Whether it was soup or toilet paper, we can all remember those empty shelves at the grocery store at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Maybe that’s why the term “teacher shortage” has many policymakers on edge these days. There’s just one problem: in education, the term “shortage” doesn’t mean what you think it means.

Take the “shortage” of elementary school teachers in Missouri for example. In 2021, the Springfield School District wanted to hire 55 elementary school teachers. They received 2,155 applications from individuals with the appropriate certification. Yet, for one reason or another, they left six positions vacant. This is a teacher shortage.

The problem is the misleading way in which the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education presents the data. In the “Teacher Shortage Report for Missouri,” released in December 2022, DESE defines shortage areas as “those content areas within the state for which positions were filled with inappropriately certified teachers(s) or left vacant due to the absence of certified candidates.”

This is possibly the broadest definition of what it means to have a shortage. If a school district hires a private school teacher with 10 years of experience and a bachelor’s degree in elementary education? Shortage. They hire an individual with an MBA to teach high school business, but he does not have certification? Shortage. Let’s say they hire someone with a high school mathematics certification to teach elementary or middle school mathematics. Shortage. Keep in mind, the state has dozens of teacher certification areas, and being certified in one does not qualify you to teach another. With this broad definition, DESE suggests Missouri was short 532 elementary school teachers (Grades 1–6) in 2022, making this the highest shortage area.

Let’s put that into perspective using raw, unweighted data provided by request from DESE. In 2022, there were 2,015 job openings for elementary school teaching positions. Districts received over 21,000 applications, more than 18,000 of which had the appropriate certification. Of course, teachers may apply for more than one job. In all, 32 elementary positions were left vacant. Thirteen of those vacancies were in the Riverview Gardens School District alone.

There is a teacher shortage — it’s just not as widespread as most believe. In total, across all certification areas, Missouri had 258 positions left vacant in 2022. These vacancies were spread across 74 of the state’s 550+ school districts, but nearly half of all vacancies were in just five school districts: Hickman Mills (17), Kansas City (17), St. Louis Special School District (19), Hazelwood (27), and Riverview Gardens (47).

Aside from the Special School District, which is a unique district that serves special-needs students in St. Louis County, the other four districts have a lot in common. They tend to serve students who come from low-income families who are Black. For example, more than 97 percent of Riverview Gardens students are Black.

The shortage narrative has been used to push for an increase to the starting teacher salary in Missouri. According to data obtained from the Missouri State Teachers Association, the average starting salary in these four districts is $40,075. That is well above the current state minimum of $25,000 and even above the proposed minimum of $38,000 that is currently before the Missouri legislature. Estimates suggest this increase would cost the state $21 million.

Such an increase could actually exacerbate the problems facing high-poverty, majority-minority school districts. If all the districts that currently pay less are forced to offer higher wages, Riverview Gardens, Hickman Mills, and other districts that struggle with teacher recruitment will lose the competitive advantage of higher salaries. Imagine: the state could spend $21 million and fail to even address the real shortage problem in Missouri’s most disadvantaged school districts.

Missouri’s teacher shortage is not equally felt throughout the state; it is most pronounced in high-poverty, majority-minority school districts. Accordingly, strategies to address the shortage should provide targeted support for the affected districts. This could include salary supplements for teachers in hard-to-staff schools, or it could mean intense marketing, recruitment, and human-resource support for these schools. An across-the-board increase in minimum teacher salary is not what Missouri needs, and it could very well do more harm than good.

James V. Shuls, Ph.D., is an associate professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and a Director of Research / Senior Fellow of Education Policy at the Show-Me Institute.

This article originally appeared on Columbia Daily Tribune: What does Missouri’s teacher shortage really look like?