The news has been filled with stories of a widespread shortage of teachers as public schools across the U.S. are getting set to begin another school year.
Last week the Washington Post‘s Hannah Natanson reported: “Florida is asking veterans with no teaching background to enter classrooms. Arizona is allowing college students to step in and instruct children.” School districts often struggle in late summer to hire enough teachers and other essential staff to keep class sizes reasonable and ensure that all schools can fully serve their students’ needs. But the shortage seems more acute this year.
Natanson points to “a confluence of factors including pandemic-induced teacher exhaustion, low pay and some educators’ sense that politicians and parents—and sometimes their own school board members—have little respect for their profession amid an escalating educational culture war that has seen many districts and states pass policies and laws restricting what teachers can say about U.S. history, race, racism, gender and sexual orientation, as well as LGBTQ issues. The stopgap solutions for lack of staff run the gamut, from offering teachers better pay to increasing the pool of people who qualify as educators to bumping up class sizes.”
There is evidence, however, of a deeper problem rarely explored in the mainstream press but frequently named by teachers themselves: two decades of standardized test-based school accountability which forces teachers to emphasize two subjects, reading and math, and demands test prep on basic skills to elevate overall school ratings required by the states and the federal government. Three years ago, even before COVID-19 utterly upended public schools, Peter Greene penned a blog post that characterizes teachers’ point of view: “I’ve been saying it. Tim Slekar (a well known education professor and blogger and podcaster) has been saying it. Other people who aren’t even directly tied to teaching have been saying it. There is no teacher shortage. There’s a slow-motion walkout, a one-by-one exodus, a piecemeal rejection of the terms of employment for educators in 2019… Teaching has become such unattractive work that few people want to do it… Respect. Support. The tools necessary to do a great job. Autonomy. Treating people like actual functioning adults. These are all the things that would make teaching jobs far more appealing.”
Two weeks ago, the National Education Policy Center’s newsletter reported on new peer-reviewed research documenting that Greene was correct: teachers want more latitude to shape what happens in their classrooms: “For administrators, policymakers, and educators, the study, published in March in the peer-reviewed journal Education Policy Analysis Archives (EPAA), suggests several potential solutions to the K-12 version of the Great Resignation… (T)he new study adds to the existing literature through a deep dive into the impact of teacher voice…. (T)he study finds that higher levels of ‘teacher voice’—defined as the level of teacher influence over classrooms and schools—are associated with lower levels of (teacher) attrition, even after accounting for factors also known to impact attrition, such as salary.”
In a recent column republished by the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss, two elementary sschool teachers, Raechel Barone and Karen Engels, write ostensibly to explain what their students desperately need from their schools as we all readjust after the COVID disruption. What emerges from these teachers’ poignant description of what their students need, however, exposes what these teachers themselves desperately need as school gets underway in the fall of 2022: “Ask teachers around the country about their experiences, and most sound eerily similar. There’s simply a big gap between what we’re being asked to do—relentlessly push students to ‘catch up’ from ‘learning loss’—and what we feel we should do for our students. The education policy context we operate within often seems woefully out of step with the actual children in our classrooms.” Barone and Engels define six of their young students’ most basic needs as we begin another school year and our nation tries to control COVID: (1) love, trust and belonging; (2) emotional safety and well-being; (3) affirmation of full identity; (4) sense of agency and power; (5) unstoppable curiosity; and (6) opportunity to master core skills.
Barone and Engels describe what has gone wrong with education policy over the past two decades: “(T)eachers across the country feel excluded from the policy decisions that directly impact their day-to-day instruction… The 2002 No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act rightly called out ‘the soft bigotry of low expectations’ (which President George W. Bush warned against) and decried the stark contrast between the academic test scores of students of different races. But the solution—a relentless focus on math and reading to be measured annually in high stakes assessments—was the wrong solution. Why? Because the solution addresses only one of the six pillars of a classroom where kids can thrive. And in focusing the spotlight on this pillar of foundational skills, NCLB effectively knocked the other pillars loose, unwittingly risking the stability of the whole enterprise of education… We need to loosen our worship of quantitative metrics…. We (teachers) need emotional safety to take risks, to make mistakes, and to receive supportive rather than punitive approaches to our growth.”
Teachers need respect and a sense that they won’t be denied agency in shaping their classrooms and their schools. But neither can our society be complacent about what has been happening to educators’ salaries. In June, Bloomberg reported: “Teacher salaries dropped to lowest in a decade during the COVID pandemic… The starting salary for teachers in the U.S. averaged $41,770 for the 2020-21 school year, a 4% decrease from the prior year when adjusted for inflation. Uncertainty drove real wages, which factor in inflation levels, for starting teachers lower, erasing gains made over the course of the last 10 years… Nearly half of all districts in the country offer starting salaries below $40,000, the report found.”
Teachers’ compensation varies across the states as well as across particular school districts within a state. In April, the Learning Policy Institute published an important resource which compares states’ starting salaries for teachers when adjusted for the cost of living. The report also ranks the states by overall teachers’ wage competitiveness—“how much teachers earn relative to other college-educated workers in that state.” These rankings may surprise you.
Here in order are the top states where teachers’ compensation reaches the level of compensation for other college-educated workers. At the top is Wyoming, followed in order by Rhode Island, New Jersey, Alaska, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, New York, Vermont, and Pennsylvania.
Here are the ten bottom states where teachers’ compensation lags farthest behind the level of compensation for other college-educated workers. At the bottom is Virginia, and above in order of worst to best: Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Colorado, Washington, Oregon, North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Missouri.
Some school districts are using COVID relief (American Rescue Plan) dollars to offer teachers bonuses; after all, funds from this one-time grant cannot be sustained as part of teachers’ contracts in future budget years. Education Week‘s Stephen Sawchuck points to a new Education Week survey showing that: “Teachers prefer base salary increases. Teachers say the financial strategy that would most encourage them to stay is to cover increases that exceed the cost of living.” But: “No matter how well earned, raises like these are typically an expensive proposition for district leaders.”
We must circle back, therefore, to the core problem: the shortage of states’ public education budgets, too often exacerbated these days by expanded voucher and charter school expenditures. In the newest (December 2021) annual school funding report released by the Albert Shanker Institute, school finance expert Bruce Baker explains that states’ Fiscal Effort to fund schools has declined. Here is how Baker defines a state’s fiscal effort to fund public education: “Fiscal effort is state and local expenditures in each state as a proportion of its gross state product. Effort indicators assess how much states leverage their ability to raise revenue, and help to differentiate states that lack the capacity to meet their students’ needs from those that refuse to devote sufficient resources to their public schools.”
Baker concludes: “U.S. average effort is at its lowest level in at least 20 years. In 37 states, effort is lower than it was on average during the four years before the 2007-09 recession. Even after their economies recovered, most states failed to reinvest in their schools. Decreasing effort since 2007 ‘cost’ U.S. schools almost $70 billion in 2019 alone… The total cumulative ‘loss’ between 2013 and 2019 is $400 billion, 9 percent of total spending over this time period.”