Federal Relief Funds: An Opportunity to Invest in Teachers

Image of socially distanced teachers in a classroom, wearing masks

With a new round of COVID-19 relief funds headed to states and districts nationwide, education leaders have a rare opportunity to make strategic and comprehensive investments in the teacher workforce.

In this Q&A, two leaders of AIR’s Center on Great Teachers & LeadersLisa Lachlan, principal researcher, and Lynn Holdheide, managing technical assistance consultant—share insights and evidence-based recommendations to address new and persistent teacher quality and teacher shortage issues.

Q. How has COVID-19 affected school staffing?

Lisa Lachlan: While research has yet to make conclusions about the impacts of the pandemic as it relates to educator shortages, states have noted increases in early teacher retirement (e.g., California and Michigan), shortages of substitute teachers, and declining enrollment in teacher preparation programs. The decline in enrollment in teacher preparation programs is an indication that there may be less interest broadly in the teaching profession, which may result in increasing educator shortages. What is particularly concerning is that students in some communities most impacted by the pandemic are also those that historically have been disproportionately impacted by educator shortages—students of color, students living in low-income communities, English learners, and students with disabilities.

Lynn Holdheide: I want to emphasize that teacher workforce issues—shortages, educator effectiveness, declining enrollment in teacher preparation programs—were problems before COVID-19, but the pandemic has heightened them. For instance, teacher shortages have been a persistent problem, especially in high-need fields like special education and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), and in high-need schools (rural schools and schools with high poverty rates). The pandemic has increased the number of teachers leaving the profession or retiring early due to higher levels of stress—and their leaving is likely disproportionate in high-need schools. At the same time, states have passed emergency legislation that either lessened requirements or delayed teacher certification requirements and substitute qualifications, resulting in teachers being less than fully prepared at a time when effective teachers are needed to address learning loss fueled by the pandemic. Increasing the pipeline is good—but we don’t want this to compromise quality. Doing so will undermine efforts to address student learning loss.

Q. What federal COVID-19 funding is available to address these staffing issues?

Lachlan: The first round of funding—the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act—allotted $30.75 billion to education in March 2020. The second round of funding, the COVID Relief Package of December 2020, sent $82 billion to states for education. States then allocate the money to districts and higher education institutions.

The American Rescue Plan (ARP), enacted in March 2021, dedicates $168 billion to K-12 and higher education. This is the third and largest round of federal relief funding for education during the pandemic.

Holdheide: An unprecedented amount of funding is available to states and districts through the CARES Act, COVID Relief Package, and ARP. There are some specific requirements tied to the use of these funds. For example, at least 5% of state ARP funds and 20% of district ARP funds need to be targeted to address learning loss. But there is a considerable amount of flexibility in how the funds can be used. This level of flexibility provides states and districts an opportunity to think bigger and beyond the pandemic. This can include innovative strategies that not only stabilize the educator workforce but strengthen it for the long term. The funds can be used to rethink how we staff schools, transforming the way we attract, prepare, and retain educators. Such investments in human capital, paired with a research- and data-driven framework to determine return on investment, can help to target and/or reallocate resources on innovations that work.

Q. What can state, district, and school leaders do in the short term to address staffing issues?

Holdheide: Differentiated staffing models can help with teacher shortages, stress, and retention. This means leveraging the most effective teachers and expanding their reach. These teachers plan and lead learning experiences for larger groups of students, with a team of teaching assistants and even aspiring teachers under the lead teacher’s direction. During the pandemic, some schools have moved in this direction with virtual learning. An AIR study of one differentiated staffing model showed evidence of large student learning gains.

Lachlan: This is a good opportunity for states to think about the value of their teaching workforce and the importance of addressing teacher shortages. This is especially the case as it pertains to federal recovery funding, which is focused on inequities that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. These inequities will grow larger if states invest narrowly in technology, broadband, and tech-focused professional development without addressing shortages. We need to think about the essential role of teachers in mediating these other investments. Without a strategic and comprehensive approach to addressing teacher shortages, this large infusion of funds is not likely to have impact—particularly for underserved school communities

Holdheide: North Carolina is a good example of how one state used some its federal funds to try to shore up the teacher workforce and address inequities. With federal funding, North Carolina hired more teachers, teacher assistants, nurses, counselors, social workers, and psychologists to support at-risk students and students with disabilities and relieve already stretched and stressed professionals.

Q. What does a longer-term strategic and comprehensive approach to school staffing look like?

Lachlan: States and districts really need to pivot from short-term strategies to address immediate staffing needs during the pandemic, some of which are at odds with longer-term strategies to attract, prepare, and retain highly effective teachers. For example, waiving certification and licensing requirements for teachers who were close to the end of their educator preparation programs, but didn’t have the full student teaching experience in the classroom, may fill an urgent staffing need. But over time, these policy changes run the risk of more attrition and reduced teacher quality if teachers are underprepared. To think longer term, states and districts need to pair these new teachers with a targeted mentoring and induction program and give them adequate support to thrive through and beyond these first years teaching in a pandemic.

Holdheide: AIR’s Center on Great Teachers & Leaders released guidance for education leaders on school staffing that remains highly relevant now. The guidance offers strategies that address the entire continuum of the teaching profession—attracting, preparing, and retaining effective teachers with professional learning and support.

Q: How can states use federal relief funds to support educator preparation programs?

Holdheide: Arizona is one of several states that is using this funding to strengthen the pipeline of teacher talent. The state invested $6 million in CARES Act funding in the Arizona Teachers Academy, a program that helps pay for tuition and fees for students in a state university or community college educator preparation program. The scholarship pays all tuition and fees not covered by other scholarships or grants. Students must commit to a year of teaching in an Arizona public school for each year they receive the scholarship.

Lachlan: States have a golden opportunity to direct new funds to strengthen the educator workforce. Given that the pandemic has likely impacted underserved schools disproportionately, educator workforce investments can help support proactive, targeted, and purposeful policy and practice that is grounded in the unique needs and contexts of underserved schools. One critical step in closing equity gaps is to start by acknowledging and addressing the gaps we have in the quality and diversity of our classrooms.

Four Principles for Addressing Teacher Shortages Systematically

  1. Shortages are a local issue. Although national and state-level shortage data provide valuable information, the data often obscure patterns in shortages at the district and school levels that directly affect students’ access to effective teachers.
  2. Shortages are an equity issue. Shortages do not impact all localities and populations of students in the same way. Improving equitable access to effective special education teachers means addressing teacher shortages at the local level for the highest-need populations of students.
  3. Shortages can impact any stage of the career continuum. Shortages can result from attracting or preparing too few teachers or from high rates of teacher attrition. Understanding the points on the career continuum at which shortages develop, expand, or contract is essential for selecting strategies that will address their root causes.
  4. Shortages require collaboration across partners at all stages of the career continuum. Addressing shortages requires strong networks with shared ownership, collective action, and joint accountability among state and local education agencies and educator preparation programs. Partners need clearly defined roles and responsibilities to work together.

Source: Examining the Impact of COVID-19 on the Teaching Workforce (PDF)