For an alternate viewpoint, see “Counterpoint: The Phantom Teacher Shortage.”
The teacher shortage is real — and has been growing over the last decade. While shortages vary across schools, districts, regions, grades and subject matter, they are most severe in schools that serve larger numbers of students from low-income families and students of color and in subjects like special education, mathematics and science.
The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the shortage — with 108,000 vacancies in teacher roles nationwide. With federal COVID funds set to run out soon, we face a potential loss of an additional 136,000 teacher jobs, resulting in fewer staffers in schools, increased student-teacher ratios, and a possible uptick in teacher turnover.
As a former educator, I am familiar with these data. Teachers leave for a myriad of reasons, including the following:
—Overload: Teachers manage a near-impossible number of tasks in a school day. On top of that, they spend evenings and weekends creating lessons and materials, not to mention grading student work. This burden for teachers can also have repercussions for students: EdReports cites that “the effect (of high-quality curriculum) on learning is the same as moving an average performing teacher to one at the 80th percentile.” Given that effect, curriculum choices are too important to leave up to late-night prep sessions.
—Compensation: Teachers in the United States make less money and work more than in economically similar countries. Further, teacher salaries have not increased at the same rate as professions requiring comparable education. On average, teachers earn 23.5 percent less than comparable college graduates. With rising housing prices, childcare and other expenses, the compensation many teachers receive can fall short. The issue is further exacerbated by limited school budgets, which drive teachers to pay out of pocket for basic supplies.
—Growth Opportunities: Teachers have a flat growth trajectory relative to other careers. Says one Colorado teacher: “Our current system relies on the idea that each individual has the same basic responsibilities—it relies on a structure that reflects a flat teaching career.”
Here’s my reason for leaving: I moved back to my hometown to be closer to family. Unfortunately, my Colorado teaching license was invalid in the District of Columbia.
Unfortunately, 25 years later, things haven’t changed much. Teachers are still overloaded, there is a flat career ladder, and many states still lack reciprocity of teaching licenses. And while strides have been made in compensation, there are vast differences across localities as school budgets are still tied to local property taxes.
In this rather bleak landscape, there are bright spots:
—A Team-Based Approach: Next Education Workforce is working to redesign teaching through a team-based approach, which distributes teaching tasks among a team and deploys educators in new ways, allowing for greater personalization for students — and greater opportunities for differentiation and advancement within the profession.
—A New Teacher Corps Program: Also promising are teacher apprenticeships, like the “Grow Your Own” program from The National Center for Grow Your Own, or programs run through universities like Dallas College. Apprentices collaborate with a classroom teacher and build into a teacher role over time. In this model, apprentice teachers can get on-the-job training and a gradual increase in responsibility, which could reduce the potential for burnout.
— Movement on reducing barriers for mobile teachers: Ten states are working to ensure a meaningful level of reciprocity among licensure systems by signing onto the Interstate Teacher Mobility Compact. Another barrier for teachers moving between states is their retirement funds, as teachers who move are less likely to receive benefits equivalent to their years of service. We have seen progress with alternative retirement structures in places like Washington state, where their hybrid plan options provide retirement wealth comparable to or greater than traditional teacher plans.
—Increasing compensation: Teachers should be paid more. Full stop. We could also increase teachers’ overall compensation with housing incentives and loan forgiveness. The Houston Independent School District implemented a standard minimum salary of $61,500, and the average Houston ISD teacher got an 11 percent raise last fall. Early signs show this paying off. In addition, Los Gatos Union School District in California has recently provided affordable teacher housing. Similar teacher housing initiatives are in the works in many other districts.
Innovations and adjustments like these can reduce teacher turnover, draw highly qualified candidates into the profession, and improve student outcomes. What are we waiting for?