The failure to retain teachers is costing America $8 billion a year.
That’s one of the findings in a policy paper released this month by an education think tank, The Learning Policy Institute. According to “A Coming Crisis in Teaching? Teacher Supply, Demand and Shortages in the U.S.,” the country faces a serious shortfall of teachers that will get worse until changes are made.
An estimated 60,000 more teachers were needed this past school year than were available nationwide. That means many children – often in high-poverty or rural schools in the South – spent an entire year in overcrowded classrooms or in classrooms taught by unqualified or substitute teachers.
The reason for the shortage is two-fold.
Fewer people want to be teachers than in the past. In fact, teacher preparation programs have seen a decrease in their enrollments by more than a third since 2009. Chief among the reasons is relatively low pay. Teachers’ salaries, which have been in decline, now are only 70 percent of the salaries of other college-educated workers. In fact, teachers with fewer than ten years’ experience make less than unskilled workers in many states. In 30 states, mid-career teachers with families of four have salaries low enough, they qualify for public assistance such as free or reduced-price lunch or subsidized children’s health insurance.
A bigger problem is the attrition rate of experienced teachers. Only 13 percent of veteran teachers told researchers the primary reason they were leaving was retirement. 55 percent leave because they are dissatisfied with teaching conditions, including poor salaries, large class sizes, insufficient materials and supplies, lack of administrative support, lack of autonomy or a voice in policy decisions, and an overemphasis on testing and accountability.
Teachers who do not enter teaching through a comprehensive preparation program are more likely to leave after their first year of teaching. Teachers in the South are the most likely to leave early, whereas the states with the lowest teacher turnover are in the Northeast, where spending on education is significantly higher.
The study’s authors include policy recommendations to stem the growing shortfall.
Teaching must be a profession that compensates teachers with “competitive, equitable compensation packages that allows teachers to make a reasonable living across all kinds of communities.” This could include increasing statewide salary schedules and offering financial incentives such as loan forgiveness, mortgage guarantees and child care support.
Good mentoring and induction programs for new teachers improve attrition rates. So do principal training programs that teach leadership skills.
Correcting teachers’ working conditions is critical. A quarter of teachers cite onerous testing and accountability measures as reasons for leaving. Ill-advised school reforms such as tying student assessments to teacher performance measures – which are invalid and harmful to teachers and students – are driving teachers out of the profession.
“The teacher shortage provides an opportunity for the United States to take a long-term approach to a comprehensive and systematic set of solutions to build a strong teaching profession,” the study concludes. “Although these proposals have a price tag, they could ultimately save far more than they would cost.
“In the competition for educational investment, the evidence points strongly to the importance of a strong, stable teaching force. Preventing and eliminating teacher shortages so that all children receive competent, continuous instruction in every community every year is, in a 21st century economy, essential for the success of individuals as well as for our society as a whole.”
Kay McSpadden teaches high school English in York, S.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.