We have a looming teacher shortage in this country. Looming, that is, if you look at the field as a whole. In many areas, the teacher shortage is not looming but real and immediate. Most states, in fact, have at least some rural districts that are scrambling to fill available teaching openings.
Meanwhile, eight percent of teachers in any given year do not return to teach the following year, a rate of attrition double that of many other fields. Further, schools of education are drawing fewer students. In a recent five-year period, the number of new candidates preparing to be teachers dropped by 35%.
We know this situation compromises the education kids receive — especially those in lower income districts. But what is driving this issue?
There are numerous forces at play. These include teacher training, professional autonomy, class sizes, and standardized testing. I will address these in other posts, but here I want to address one major factor: compensation.
When a recent college graduate heading into the teaching profession can expect to earn 20% less than graduates in other fields, the attractiveness of the teaching profession to bright young adults is compromised.
You might correctly observe that money is not a good rationale to become a teacher. Shouldn’t concern for students come first? Of course it should. As someone who hired many superb teachers in my tenure as a school director, I always looked first to the teacher’s ability to connect with young people. And I was VERY aware of the limited salaries I was able to offer.
But think of it this way: if teachers are required not only to show intellect, creativity, compassion, and the academic commitment to earn a teaching credential, but ALSO the willingness to work at a low salary, isn’t that too much to ask?
Many others have addressed this issue. Some have observed that the roots of the teacher salary issue lie in the fact that teaching was traditionally a female-dominated profession. Like nursing and childcare, we have always paid teachers less than professionals in male-dominated fields. This is true.
Others have commented that in countries that pay teachers well, like Iceland, the quality of education is significantly higher, not only by academic measures but by the level of humanity and care that schools embody. This is also true.
And many have identified the fact that historically – and especially now, given our current anti-intellectual culture – we simply don’t value education enough to allocate the resources needed to make education truly effective. Clearly, this is also true.
We can’t change history, but we must act to change the future. I have a proposal that, with sufficient support, might become a statewide initiative and be voted into law. I propose a requirement that teacher salaries be calibrated to an income standard for a given community, reflecting the mean salary of professionals with comparable training.
So let’s say we listed ten professions in which the level of skill, preparation, and complexity was roughly similar to those of a teacher. Examples might include accountants, firefighters, urban planners, lab technicians, stockbrokers, bus drivers, and store managers. Calculate the mean salary of all those positions, and base teacher salaries for that community on that figure.
There would need to be flexibility. Extra responsibilities like coaching sports or serving on committees would warrant salary tweaks, just as they do now. And I know some will complain that teachers only work nine months of the year. But my experience in schools has shown that teachers work a full year, they just do it in nine compressed months of long days and uncompensated weekend tasks.
Might such a plan help reduce teacher attrition? What do you think? And how critical is salary compared with other factors that tend to drive teachers out of the field? Would tying teacher pay to a community standard help address the inequity issue? Let me know what you think!