Cover: Principal Perspectives on School Staffing Struggles

Principal Perspectives on School Staffing Struggles

Findings from the 2022 Learn Together Survey

Published May 3, 2023

by George Zuo, Alice Huguet, Elizabeth D. Steiner

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Research Questions

  1. What were K–12 principals' biggest challenges to covering classrooms during the 2021–2022 school year?
  2. According to principals surveyed, what were the biggest obstacles to filling vacant teaching positions during the 2021–2022 school year?
  3. What teacher qualifications did surveyed principals prioritize when hiring?

In this report, a nationally representative sample of kindergarten through 12th grade (K–12) public school principals were asked about their experiences with covering classrooms and hiring staff. In the spring of the 2021–2022 school year, which coincided with the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) omicron variant surge, most principals struggled to keep classrooms consistently staffed and many reported that hiring had become more challenging since the previous school year. Principals indicated that a lack of substitute teachers — not an increase in open teaching positions — was the main reason for classroom coverage shortages.

In addition to day-to-day coverage issues, most principals reported that teacher vacancies were on the rise. Most of these principals believed that vacancies had grown more difficult to fill than in the prior school year, largely because of declining applicant counts. Principals' preferences when hiring teachers lend further insight into potential drivers of hiring challenges. A large majority of principals expressed strong preferences for like-minded teachers whose mindsets aligned with the vision and culture of the schools. Few principals prioritized the diversity of the educator workforce at their schools.

Key Findings

  • At the time of survey administration in March and April 2022 — just after the height of the COVID-19 omicron variant surge — more than half of responding K–12 public school principals across the country indicated that they regularly had insufficient teachers to staff their classrooms. Staffing issues were reportedly most prevalent at lower-income schools and schools serving mostly students of color.
  • Principals overwhelmingly attributed teacher staffing challenges to insufficient availability of substitute teachers. Comparatively few principals pointed to vacant teaching positions as the reason for coverage issues.
  • Most principals — both those with and without teaching vacancies in their schools—expressed that their hiring efforts had been impeded by low applicant counts, low compensation, and underqualified candidates. Principals at schools predominantly serving White students were significantly less likely to indicate that these were barriers to hiring.
  • Most principals with vacancies for classroom teachers reported that such vacancies had increased at their schools between the 2020–2021 and 2021–2022 school years, largely because of declines in applications and accepted job offers. Few principals attributed their increasing vacancies to an expansion in the number of teaching positions.
  • When hiring, most principals prioritized how well applicants' mindsets aligned with the vision and culture of their schools. Elementary principals prioritized teaching experience and high school principals prioritized credentials. Principals varied widely on whether they valued the diversity of their educator workforces.


  • Policymakers, educators, and media should exercise caution when discussing teacher shortages, because the situation is not monolithic. Challenges in filling teaching positions are not universal and differ by geography and school characteristics.
  • Districts should carefully inspect how substitute teachers are allocated across schools and revisit efforts to attract and retain substitute teachers. Substitute teachers are not a postscript in current discussions of teacher shortages. Principals see a lack of substitute teachers as a key driver of their staffing struggles.
  • Districts should consider what they can do to recruit, hire, and retain teachers of color. Some suggested avenues for improving diversity across schools include increased pay and loan forgiveness opportunities, organizational changes in hiring practices, and preservice and in-service training for principals.
  • States should revisit teacher qualification requirements. As many states have been reducing the qualifications required to teach, one reason surveyed principals struggled to hire teachers is because they did not think the available applicants were qualified to be in their classrooms.

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This report is based on research funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and conducted by RAND Education and Labor.

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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