A Fix to Teacher Shortages: The K-12 Adjunct Teacher

By Keri Ingraham Published on February 25, 2021

There’s been talk for years of a teacher shortage. This problem could become acute in the aftermath of the pandemic. Can school budgets absorb declining enrollment even while payroll costs creep up? What will happen to technical subjects and special education with fewer certified teachers?

Nationwide Teacher Shortage

If the teacher shortage really happens, students who need to catch up after long school closures could get even less attention than they did before. Classes might be larger and school weeks shorter. And they may have to endure prolonged remote and hybrid, rather than in-person, learning. Teachers already feel stretched. These measures would make things worse.

Declining Public School Enrollment

School enrollment has been declining for years. This is mainly the result of a 20% drop in birthrates since the 2008 financial crisis. Then 2020 added insult to injury, with students dropping out of school at unprecedented levels. More families are seeking alternatives to public schools, such as homeschooling, private school, microschools, learning pods, and private tutors.

The declining enrollment worries school district leaders who are trying to balance their budgets. Government ties its funding to enrollment numbers, while personnel costs rise annually due to seniority-based salary schedules and union demands.

Technical Subject and Special Education Staffing Needs

School districts tend to face teacher shortages in upper level math and science. High industry demand for graduates with these majors leaves schools with few applicants to choose from. Special education jobs are likewise harder to fill. As the shortage deepens, schools may have to reduce some technical subjects and cut corners with special education.

Strategic Solution

Higher education may provide some lessons for how K-12 schools could solve these problems. Colleges and universities often contract with adjuncts. There are several advantages to this strategy.

First, this allows schools to adjust to volatile enrollment numbers. Second, it connects students with enthusiastic experts. And third, these experts put pressure on tenured faculty to provide quality and engaging instruction.

What would happen if K-12 public education followed the example of colleges and universities and leveraged the benefits of adjunct teachers within their classrooms?

The same strategy could reduce the teacher shortage and budget shortfalls in K-12 public school. That’s right. Schools could meet their growing need for technical experts and special education staff for less money. After all, adjuncts are often part-time, non-tenured positions that lack the costly perks of full-time counterparts.

Only one thing stands in the way of this fix — teacher certification laws.

Teacher Certification Laws

These laws are meant to make sure public schools have good teachers. But this has not borne out. As a nation, the average student achieves less year after year. Teacher quality surely plays a role. So, it’s time to scrutinize the roadblock of teacher certification.

Certification laws may be well-meaning. But according to Donald P. Nielsen’s research outlined in Every School: One Citizen’s Guide to Transforming Education, they hinder K-12 teaching rather than advance it. Nielsen highlights the irony of these laws that give “monopoly control over the supply of human capital entering our public schools.” He goes on to note that the stringent K-12 certification laws require an aspiring public school teacher to complete a university or non-traditional teacher program for one to two years. The person can be certified by an unaccredited school of education with uncertified faculty. And yet a K-12 public school can’t hire a college math professor with a master’s degree in that subject to teach a high school math course. As a result, many gifted and highly educated experts opt not to enter K-12 public education.

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According to a Public Agenda survey, only thirteen percent of principals and seven percent of superintendents are confident current certification ensures a teacher will succeed. Likewise, 62% of teachers coming out of schools of education say they were unprepared. So if most teachers, principals, and superintendents don’t think certification guarantees classroom success, why not try other paths of entry?

Superior Student Learning Outcomes

Data has shown that allowing non-certified teachers to enter K-12 education lowers neither the teacher standard nor student learning. On the contrary, the extra competition allows school administrators to pick the best and brightest from a more diverse pool of candidates. Teach For America (TFA) is an example of this approach. TFA allows top college graduates to teach despite lacking a teaching certificate. These teachers have produced remarkable academic gains in low-performing schools.

The Value of Life Experience

Many private schools employ non-certified, part-time subject matter experts as teachers with great success. They may hire retired professionals or mid-career switchers based on their education, outside experience, skills, and expertise. These assets often set them apart from certified candidates who are fresh-out-of-college.

It’s Time to Reconsider Certification Requirements

Schools have a duty to provide good teachers for students. Rather than trusting flawed certification, schools should look at candidates’ advanced degrees, outside experience, skills, job performance, and interpersonal skills with children and teens. The need for adjuncts in K-12 classrooms has never been greater. It’s time for state legislators and state departments of education to re-evaluate the current K-12 public school certification laws. In the end, this would help not just students, but district leaders, schools, and teachers themselves.


Dr. Keri D. Ingraham is a Fellow of Discovery Institute and Director of the Institute’s American Center for Transforming Education. She spent nearly two decades leading within the field of education. In 2019, she was invited as a contributing author for the book, MindShift: Catalyzing Change in Christian Education and co-authored From Gutenberg to 5G.

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