Addressing Teacher Shortages with Differentiated Staffing Models

Gretchen Weber

Image of graphic showing importance of staffing qualified teachers during the COVID pandemicThe COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly disrupted our education system, changing what classrooms and learning look like on a day-to-day basis. Educators are navigating a constantly shifting landscape, with the health of students, teachers, and the community at large at stake. In this series, AIR experts provide their insight into evidence-based practices and approaches for facilitating high-quality instruction—from preparing and retaining teachers to staffing schools to providing teachers with professional learning opportunities—even during uncertain times.

U.S. schools face a trifecta of challenges worsened by the coronavirus pandemic: teacher turnover, teacher shortages, and declining teacher morale. Consider:

  • Before the start of every school year, school districts typically recruit new talent to fill vacancies on their teaching staff. As in any profession or occupation, turnover is expected. Pre-pandemic, the teacher turnover rate was about 16 percent overall, but in some places it was 50 percent higher, due in large part to dissatisfaction with working conditions, low salary, and lack of administrative support. National surveys indicate that significant percentages of teachers don’t want to return to school this fall.
  • Persistent teacher shortages in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects, special education, and other specialties existed before the pandemic. These shortages aren’t going away—and, given many teachers’ ambivalence about returning to school, they could get worse.
  • Many teachers are racing the clock to learn new skill sets and adjust curriculum, lessons, materials, and student engagement routines. At the same time, teacher morale continues to decline—and the trend goes in the wrong direction for teachers who want to remain in their positions. In an EdWeek survey, 32 percent of teachers reported in August that they are likely to leave their jobs this year even though they were unlikely to do so before the pandemic. That’s up from 26 percent in July and 12 percent in May—and this is just the beginning of the school year.

This perfect storm demands a new approach. Can we see past the short-term, pandemic-induced challenges and find novel solutions to teacher turnover, shortages, and declining morale? Could the pandemic be the force that finally drives us to permanent solutions that have been much needed for a long time? As it happens, AIR and others have been immersed in developing solutions for some time.

Signs of a Shift in the School Staffing Model

Eleven years ago, AIR published a paper reissued in 2012, Toward the Structural Transformation of Schools: Innovations in Staffing, that offers creative ideas for managing teacher talent, differentiating staffing, and creating new career paths for teachers. This is part of an “unbundled education” approach, where major structures of teaching and learning are taken apart and put back together in new ways.

Transformed Schools

“The transformation of schools means that education will become 'unbundled'—no longer wrapped in a neat brick-and-mortar school package, with teachers with similarly inadequate training struggling to differentiate their instruction in a homogenized one-teacher-per-classroom delivery model. … [S]tudents will make progress as fast or slow as they are able to acquire important content and achieve performance-based competencies with their teachers’ support. Schools will become facilitated platforms for open content and curriculum, social media, and communities of action. They will become the nerve centers of the communities they serve. In short, schools will assume a new identity.”

Toward the Structural Transformation of Schools: Innovations in Staffing (PDF)

It may be surprising to learn we wrote this paper 11 years ago. While we weren’t peering into a perfect crystal ball back then, many of the ideas remain relevant today—maybe even more so, as schools clearly have assumed a new identity as the nerve centers of their communities during COVID-19, especially where the community schools model is strong. Bits and pieces of unbundled education, such as competency-based education and open education resources, have come to life. We are living the very definition of unbundled education, in that “the school walls will become so permeable as to be almost virtual.”

What’s missing so far is more shifting toward our proposed “neo-differentiated staffing model,” which organizes teachers into teams and differentiates roles according to their skill, expertise, demands of the curriculum, and the needs of children.

There has been some piecemeal movement in this direction. For instance, teachers are spearheading the charge to become leaders from their classrooms as mentors, curriculum designers, instructional coaches, technology facilitators, data coaches, professional development instructors, and assessment designers. Pre-pandemic, there were good signs of these shifts taking root and flourishing. Changing state policies on teacher leadership, formal state and district structures, teacher leadership model standards, and federal initiatives like Teach to Lead created options to recognize teacher leadership roles and provide multiple career pathways within the teaching profession.

Another example of innovative staffing in practice is the Opportunity Culture initiative of Public Impact, a partner of AIR’s Center on Great Teachers and Leaders. A deeply experienced, highly effective teacher leads the learning experience for a group of 50 students instead of the typical class size of 25—and this teacher is well compensated for his or her expertise. A team of teaching assistants helps enact and support the learning activities that the lead teacher develops and guides. Full-time, paid residencies for aspiring teachers prime the pipeline of new teaching talent—and provide early-career support that that increases the likelihood that they’ll stay and thrive in the teaching profession. A study of this initiative by AIR and the Brookings Institution shows large student learning gains.

A Path Forward

Can we build from these foundations and models into a formal, well-aligned, and systematized set of specialized roles to better serve and support students? What if each student were served by a team—a learning clinician, content facilitator, technology integrationist, competency expert, curriculum specialist, and community liaison? In an unbundled learning environment, the necessary shifts in the teaching profession will require further specialization beyond grade level and content—not unlike a medical model of specialists—toward a neo-differentiated staffing model.

In shifting toward this model, we can continue to take cues and lessons from the medical profession:

It’s well recognized that we ask teachers to do too much. With the start of a new school year looking radically different and teachers now at the breaking point, it’s time to rethink how schools manage teacher talent.

Gretchen Weber is former vice president for Policy, Practice, and Systems Change at AIR.

A Differentiated Staffing Model in Action

Kevin, a 12-year-old, enrolls at a school with a differentiated staffing model. Rather than being assigned to the standard set of core classes, he meets first with his learning clinician. The learning clinician uses multiple sources of evidence to assess Kevin’s particular learning styles, needs, and current performance competency levels and, then, assembles a team of content facilitators.

Pam is one of Kevin’s content facilitators. She and her of colleagues are responsible for moving Kevin toward mastery of competencies and content. After Pam and other content facilitators meet as a team, as well as with Kevin, they set up his learning experiences. This means anything from engaging other stakeholders to designing formative and summative assessments. The team is responsible for evaluating Kevin’s overall educational growth. Pam also works with other school specialists to ensure that these experiences and services are provided.

In this model, Pam’s teaching is no longer bound to a curriculum that is misaligned with textbooks and state assessments. Instead it is based on a series of well-supported, centrally established achievement objectives and aligned with high-quality assessments. Pam can feel less pressure about the impact she has on Kevin’s learning because she has a team to assist her. Pam receives additional support from her instructional coach to refine her clinical practice. Pam’s coach observes her teaching, her facilitation meetings, and her ability to choose and implement effective and reliable performance-based assessments. From the district level, a curriculum specialist will visit periodically to help Pam and her coach create authentic and meaningful content-based experiences for students.

— Adapted from Toward the Structural Transformation of Schools: Innovations in Staffing (PDF)