Classrooms without teachers

In many large school districts, hundreds of teaching positions were unfilled as school year began

How many classrooms in America’s largest school districts are missing a teacher when the school year starts?

A small but significant number, according to new data obtained from those districts, though it varies widely. In Los Angeles and Houston, virtually all teaching jobs were filled. But in Chicago, nearly 6 percent of teaching jobs were vacant.

Districts used their own definitions for a “vacant” position, meaning the numbers may not be directly comparable. Still, they highlight how several big districts, by their own admission, are not able to fill teaching jobs by the time school starts. Research and experience suggests that students stand to suffer, particularly those in already struggling schools.

Districts with vacant teaching positions have less-than-ideal options. They can use short- or long-term substitutes; raise class sizes; or leave non-classroom positions like reading specialists unfilled.

Researchers and advocates say the problem can be addressed through a combination of short-term policies — like improving hiring policies that make it difficult to get into the classroom quickly — and long-term reforms, such as improving pay and working conditions to make teaching a more attractive job.

Matt Kraft, a Brown University professor who has studied how students are affected when their teacher who is hired late, summed it up: “It’s bad for kids,” he said.

In Chicago, budget questions lead to empty jobs

Chalkbeat requested the number of vacant or unfilled teaching positions at the beginning of the school year from the 15 largest school districts in the country, as well as how many teachers were employed. Their answers varied widely.

In Chicago, which was recently lauded as the urban district where students make the fastest improvements, there were nearly 1,300 teacher vacancies. As the district serves almost 400,000 students, this suggests that tens of thousands of students were affected.

A spokesperson for Chicago Public Schools said funding issues that left principals unsure of how much money they would have to hire teachers were at the root of the high vacancy rate.

“Last summer’s budgeting process was marked by an unprecedented level of uncertainty due to the state’s delay in funding education,” Emily Bolton said in a statement. School budgets would be released early this year, she said, giving principals more time to plan.

She said that if citywide social work and nursing positions — which are officially classified as teaching positions — were excluded, the vacancy rate would fall to 4.5 percent. Bolton also provided data showing that the number of open positions had been cut in half by the beginning of December.

Hawaii, which has one statewide district, reported 470 teaching vacancies to start the year.

“Filling teacher vacancies is one of the greatest challenges, as Hawaii shares the national trends of increasing teacher shortages and fewer numbers of individuals entering the profession,” said Donalyn Dela Cruz, a spokesperson for the Hawaii Department of Education.


Teacher vacancies in largest 15 school districts, 2017–18

District Teachers employed at start of school year Vacancies at start of school year Vacancy rate
New York City 77,000 900 1.16%
Los Angeles 24,166 12 0.05%
Chicago 20,413 1294 5.96%
Miami-Dade County (Florida) 20,005 147 0.73%
Clark County (Nevada) 18,541 413 2.18%
Fairfax County (Virginia) 15,526 97 0.62%
Hillsborough County (Florida) 15,401 258 1.65%
Broward County (Florida) 14,892 184 1.22%
Orange County (Florida) 13,650 79 0.58%
Hawaii 12,850 470 3.53%
Palm Beach County (Florida) 12,820 136 1.05%
Gwinnett County (Georgia) 12,150 0 0.00%
Houston 11,975 13 0.11%
Dallas 10,207 129 1.25%
Philadelphia 8,771 98 1.10%

Source: Public records requests from school districts. In the case of New York City, information came from a district spokesperson.

Vacancy rates may not be comparable.


Mireille Ellsworth, a high school teacher in Hawaii for over a decade, says she sees positions sit empty every year. It has a significant impact, especially when the vacant teachers would otherwise be assisting her students with disabilities.

“When I start the school year with a teacher that is not a [special education] teacher — just a substitute — that is really difficult,” she said. “They’re supposed to be helping with … adapting the lessons and the curriculum to the students’ unique needs.”

Including Chicago and Hawaii, nine of the 15 surveyed districts reported a vacancy rate of over 1 percent.

Should the numbers be a major concern for policymakers? On one hand, all 15 of districts reported that the vast majority of their teaching positions were filled. But in large districts, having even a small share of positions vacant means a substantial number of students going without a dedicated teacher.

“This is one where percentages are less important than the absolute number,” Dan Weisberg, the head of TNTP, a consulting group that has worked with districts to overhaul their hiring practices. “Getting close is not good enough — you need to fill every one of those vacancies.”

Some districts report doing so. Los Angeles, a district about the size of Chicago, said there were only 12 open positions at the start of the year. A district spokesperson credited recruitment practices, partnerships with local teacher preparation programs, and a program to award early contracts to certain candidates in hard-to-staff schools. The district has also touted its retention rate among novice teachers: 94 percent in the 2015–16 school year.

Kraft, the Brown professor, warned that the true number of vacancies may be higher than districts report, as some may manipulate definitions of “vacant” or have principals who attempt to hide vacancies to avoid having a teacher placed in their school.

“I think you can take [these numbers] as a lower bound,” Kraft said.

How it plays out inside classrooms

Classrooms without full-time assigned teachers aren’t just a logistical problem for schools. Those vacancies also mean students learn less.

That’s according to peer-reviewed research from Kraft, along with Brown’s John Papay. They found that students taught by late-hire teachers had slightly lower math and reading scores on year-end exams.

The study suggests that the harmful effects come not just because students get off to a slow start when a teacher is hired late, but because late-hired teachers are less effective than others. This highlights a potential hidden cost to schools that hire late: top teachers have already been snapped up.

Poor students, students of color, and students who attend struggling schools are more likely to bear those costs.

An analysis by the Chicago Teachers Union found that vacancies in the city were concentrated on schools on the south and west side, which serve more students of color and those in poverty. And Kraft’s research on an anonymous urban district in the South found that schools with more vacancies tended to serve more low-income students. “In some ways, your averages mask the real story,” he said.

Meanwhile, Kraft points to some ways to avoid late hiring: creating a streamlined hiring process, ensuring principals realize the detrimental effects of late hiring, and setting school budgets as early as possible.

Those budget timelines can be critical, because some districts have had to issue layoff notices only to scramble to rehire teachers later. Research shows that this causes teachers to leave their schools, even if their positions are not ultimately eliminated.

Sarah Rothschild, an analyst for the Chicago Teacher Union, said this has been a problem.  Pointing to budget issues, Chicago Public Schools regularly lays off teachers in the summer and then rehires for the same position months later, “at which point those people left for the suburbs or other jobs,” Rothschild said.

Offering bonuses for hard-to-staff positions, like those in special education and in high-poverty schools, could also help. Recent research has found that this approach is an effective way to retain teachers, and fewer teachers leaving means the district needs to make fewer hires.

More fundamentally, improving teacher salaries and working conditions is likely to attract new teachers and get others to stay. “That’s a big, long-term solution — not a quick fix,” said Kraft.

Corey Rosenlee, the head of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, emphasized pay, arguing that the state needs to spend more on schools.

“It’s not going to encourage people to go into the profession if they feel they can’t make a living off of it,” he said.

college plans

As Washington decides their fate, ‘Dreamers’ preparing for college are stuck in limbo

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post
Randi Smith, a psychology teacher at Metro State University, marched to support Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals during a citywide walkout in downtown Denver, CO.

While many high schoolers spend spring of their senior year coasting through classes and waiting to hear back from colleges, undocumented students who hope to attend college spend their time calling lawyers, consulting school counselors, and scouring the internet in search of ways to pay for school without the help of federal financial aid or student loans — assuming they even get in.

That process, anxiety-provoking even in a normal year, has become incalculably more chaotic this admissions season — even traumatic — as these young undocumented immigrants watch President Trump and lawmakers wrangle over Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the program that has until now allowed them to remain in the country without having to fear deportation.

As the policy battle nears a climax, these students aren’t just breathlessly waiting to learn whether they’ll be accepted into college — they’re waiting to see whether they have a future in this country.

“It’s different for me. It’s definitely more stressful and there are times when you want to give up,” said an undocumented student at KIPP NYC College Prep High School, who is graduating this year and applying to colleges. She requested anonymity because of her legal status. “But then I remind myself that regardless of what’s going on, I’m still going to do what I’ve set myself to do.”

High school counselors are also feeling the strain. They already faced the difficult task of helping undocumented students compete for private scholarships, and finding schools that will support those students once they’re on campus. Now those counselors also must monitor each twist and turn of the immigration debate in Washington, while, somehow, trying to keep their undocumented students focused on college.

One of those counselors is John Kearney, who works at Guadalupe Centers Alta Vista High School, a charter school in Kansas City, Missouri. Dozens of his soon-to-graduate students are beneficiaries of DACA, a program created under former President Obama that allows undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children to avoid deportation and work here legally. Lately, they have been asking him why they should even consider college when their fate in the U.S. is so uncertain.

“The big question is, ‘Why? Why go to college, and then I can’t even work, then why?’” said Kearney, who also helped start a nonprofit that provides scholarships to undocumented students. “It’s a really tough question.”

As of Friday, President Trump and lawmakers were still locked in heated negotiations over DACA, which Trump said this fall that he would eliminate unless Congress enshrined it in law. Without an agreement, it is set to expire March 5, just as graduating seniors firm up their college plans. If that happens, young immigrants, often called Dreamers, could lose the few crucial protections they have. For many, their DACA status has already lapsed.

Even with DACA’s protections, Dreamers face massive hurdles to enroll in college: They don’t qualify for federal aid or loans, and, in some states, are barred from receiving financial aid or even attending public universities. Out of the estimated 65,000 undocumented students who graduate from high school every year, only 5-10 percent enroll in college.

Following Trump’s announcement in September, counselors have also had to race against the clock counting down to DACA’s expiration: That meant juggling college application deadlines with the October cutoff for students to apply for renewed DACA status.

The KIPP charter school network received a donation this year to help students pay for the renewal fee, which has been a godsend for many students — including the young woman who is graduating from KIPP NYC College Prep High School.

As soon as she learned the school would pay the fee for her, she immediately called her father, who is also undocumented and repairs beauty-salon equipment for a living.

“My dad was definitely trying to round up the money before the deadline, so it was a blessing that the school was able to find a donor,” she said. “I told him not to worry about it and it was a relief — like a weight off his shoulders.”

If the girl was trying to relieve her father’s stress, her college counselor, Rob Santos, was trying to do the same for her. Even as she balanced college-application essays, transcripts, and the rest, she was also coming to realize how quickly her life would change if DACA is not extended.

“There was definitely extra emotional support that I’ve had to provide this year,” Santos said. “I definitely had my DACA student in my office, and tears were happening.”

Santos keeps a running list of the colleges that accept students who don’t have permanent legal status and the few scholarships available to them. Many of those scholarships require undocumented students to have DACA status. If the program ends, it’s unclear whether students will still be eligible.

Still, Santos said his dreamer student rarely talks about the political furor surrounding her future in the U.S. as she awaits her college-acceptance letter. Instead, she’s more likely to discuss her hope of one day studying business and fashion.

“Our DACA students are resilient. They’re optimistic,” Santos said. “But they’re also realistic for what could actually happen.”

How I Teach

Tupac, Shakespeare, and ‘Stranger Things’: How a top Tennessee teacher relates to her students

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Katherine Watkins was one of 45 educators — and one of two Tennessee teachers — honored nationally in 2017 by the the Milken Family Foundation.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

When Katherine Watkins found out she would receive a prestigious national teaching award, her students at Millington Central High wrapped her into a huge bear hug.

“We relate to her because she relates to us,” one of her students said when asked why they enjoyed her class. Watkins was honored as a Milken Educator Award last November in front of her students, colleagues and Tennessee’s top education official.

Watkins was one of 45 educators — and one of two Tennessee teachers — honored nationally in 2017 by the Milken Family Foundation.

We asked Watkins about how she strives for relatability in her classrooms, where she teaches literature, English and coordinates the school’s yearbooks. Millington Central High is racially diverse and made up of about thousand students, one-third of which are described as economically disadvantaged.

Read in her own words how she uses pop culture to build classroom rapport and how she learned not to get flustered when her students got off track. (This Q&A has been edited and condensed.)

What does your classroom look like?

My classroom is full of books, images, and objects I’ve collected from my travels. These include a handmade Venetian mask I brought back from Italy, pictures I took while standing in front of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, and a twelve-volume, leather-bound edition of the complete works of William Shakespeare that was published in London in 1786

Some people might say I’ve lost my mind to keep such precious relics within reach of teenagers, but I interpret the “value” of these treasures somewhat differently. I want desperately for my students to know and care about the world that exists beyond their immediate reality, and sometimes the best way to achieve that is through tactile experience. I’m trying to cultivate independent thinkers who have the confidence to test limits, ask tough questions, and arrive at their own conclusions. That can’t happen without direct confrontation with the unfamiliar, and until I can afford to actually take them to the places we read about in the literature we study, my souvenirs will have to suffice.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?

I could not teach without my close-knit group of teacher friends. This is only my third year at my current school, but everyone was so warm and welcoming when I arrived that it really felt like coming home. We even have a group chat we use every day to share funny memes, vent about our frustrations, offer words of encouragement, and talk through ideas. Feeling like you can be yourself around friends in a judgment-free zone makes all the difference when it comes to a high-stress job like teaching.  Without that kind of solidarity, I know I wouldn’t be nearly as resilient or effective in the classroom.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?

I used to get visibly flustered if students were talking or off task during the lesson. It took me a couple years in the classroom to realize that getting upset is the least effective way to deal with this problem. Many students misbehave because they crave attention, so getting upset is the same as relinquishing control. Nowadays, I vary my approach depending on the severity and intent of the disruption, but regardless of the situation, I never lose my cool.

I have the most success defusing behavioral disruptions through the use of nonverbal cues, which can be as simple as changing my position in the room. For example, if a cluster of students is off task while I’m addressing the whole group, I continue lecturing and simply move to where the problem is occurring and the behavior stops. I’ve also become a sort of Jedi master at the don’t-you-even-think-about-it stare of disapproval. The right look delivered at the right moment can work wonders for classroom management. 

PHOTO: Katherine Watkins
Watkins said she starts each year by giving her kids a questionnaire that asks about their interests, hobbies, attitudes, and past experiences.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?

Before my first day at Millington Central High, I had little idea what to expect of my new school and its students. I had driven through Millington a time or two on my way to other destinations, but that was the extent of my familiarity with this community. During my initial interview, I was briefed on school demographics: Millington is ethnically diverse with a high percentage of economic disadvantage, a large SPED population, and nearly a quarter of students coming from single-parent households. It would be a lie to say I never questioned whether the school would be the right fit for me. I worried about my ability to make a connection. Would my students accept me? Would I be able to make a difference in their lives?

I always start each year by giving my kids a questionnaire that asks about their interests, hobbies, attitudes, and past experiences. I use this information to get to know students and begin establishing a rapport. Left to my own devices, for example, I would never be motivated to keep up with pop culture trends, but if a large number of my students are listening to a particular artist or watching a specific TV show (Stranger Things anybody?), I make a point of consuming the same media so I can connect with them over more than just academic content. This extra effort on my part—cultural research, if you will—has worked wonders with the kids at Millington. The look of shock on their faces when they realize I can quote lines from Hamlet as readily as the lyrics to any 2Pac song is priceless.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

Knowing what’s going on in a student’s home life is a crucial part of being a good teacher, and I always try to consider the bigger picture when difficult situations arise. I have had students come forward with stories of abuse, students who have experienced the death of a parent, and students who are basically raising their younger siblings because Mom works three jobs and Dad isn’t around. A student who arrives to school late and sleeps through first period could just be lazy, but it would be callous and irresponsible to punish the child without first having a conversation to find out what’s causing the behavior. We can’t forget that kids are human beings too, some of whom are carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders. Teaching has made me realize that you can never really know what someone else is going through until you make the effort to understand. This is why it’s so important to reserve judgment and approach students with patience and compassion.