Where Have All the Teachers Gone?

The toxic combination of high student debt with low-paying work could explain why so many people choose professions outside of teaching. But there's more to it than that.
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Hand Erasing Equations
Hand Erasing Equations

Every year, as August slouches toward September, public schools around the country resume classes--and bemoan the difficulty of finding enough teachers:

  • The New York Times proclaimed "Teacher Shortages Spur a Nationwide Hiring Scramble," reporting that one North Carolina district was unable to fill 200 open teaching jobs
  • The Las Vegas Sun noted that the shortage of teachers is particularly acute in schools located in impoverished districts, with one Las Vegas school this year doubling its number of unfilled positions
  • A school superintendent in Kansas reported that he has "never had a harder time filling positions than this year"

This perennial problem is worth examining further. The first thing to note is that the shortages are uneven. Some specialties chronically face shortages: special education, bilingual education, and math and science.

When permanent positions are left unfilled by the start of term, students do not sit in an empty classroom; substitute teachers are brought in to fill the gap. Such substitutes may, or may not, have the experience needed to achieve stellar teaching in these challenging courses; the best case scenario is that students face a shifting environment, with changing expectations and teaching styles adding to the difficulty of learning science. Chronic teacher shortages in science, therefore, create a long-term problem for the quality and consistency of science education. We can happily fight for issues such as how textbooks and standards address evolution and climate change, but a major problem facing science education today is putting well-qualified teachers in front of students, under workplace conditions where those teachers want to stay and build their expertise.

This problem is only likely to get worse in the near future. Across the board, fewer aspiring teachers are in the educational pipeline to become credentialed. According to statistics from the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, the number of enrollees in teacher preparation programs fell from 44,692 in 2008-2009 to 19,933 in 2012-13, with a corresponding drop in the number of credentials issued:

These data show the disturbing trend of potential teachers "voting with their feet," by not entering the profession at all. Why?

There are many reasons for this decline. College graduates today face greater student debt than ever before, especially if they attended public institutions, because of choices made by many states to shift the burden of paying for college away from a collective responsibility (which is how we fund prisons and roads) toward those members of society least able to afford it (college students, few of whom already have high paying jobs). The long-festering strain of American anti-intellectualism now manifests itself with lawmakers seeking to mollify irate taxpayers by stickin' it to those egghead students. This was best expressed by California Governor Ronald Reagan when he questioned why the government should be in the business of subsidizing the intellectual development of students. (To everyone else, the intellectual development of students is the entire point of education.)

Because of the radical changes in college costs, graduates now face more debt than ever before. Because of this crushing debt, new graduates are more inclined to seek jobs which can pay back this debt -- and teaching jobs don't fit that bill. Teaching salaries are far below the norm for the educational level teachers acquire, especially when so many teachers earn master's degrees. If those teaching credentials were instead master's degrees in business administration (MBA), compensation would be very different. In California, the average salary for an MBA is $99,625; the average salary for a public school teacher in California in 2012-2013 was $69,324. (By way of perspective, the required income to afford the median priced house in the greater San Francisco Bay Area is $142,448, meaning a teacher could almost pull it off--if he or she could somehow work two full-time jobs simultaneously.)

But for recent graduates -- those for whom educational debt is more of an issue -- the differences are starker. Depending on the grade level, the starting salary of a beginning public school teacher in California can be as low as $38,152, while an MBA with 1-4 years of work experience can expect to earn $58,092, a perverse inversion of value.

The toxic combination of high student debt with low-paying work could explain why so many people choose professions outside of teaching. But there's more to it than that.

Earlier this year Nancie Atwell, a veteran teacher with forty-two years of experience teaching, won the first million dollar Global Teacher Prize from the Varkey Foundation. In a CNN interview following this prestigious award, she was asked what she would say to students considering a career in teaching. Atwell replied:

"Honestly, right now I encourage them to look in the private sector. Because public school teachers are so constrained right now by the Common Core standards and the tests that are developed to monitor what teachers are doing with them. It's a movement that has turned teachers into technicians, not reflective practitioners. And if you're a creative, smart young person I don't think this is the time to go into teaching..."


The education landscape has radically changed in recent years, with No Child Left Behind as just one particularly brutal manifestation of the anti-teacher, anti-education mindset relentlessly pushing education toward "reform." But education does not need reform. There is nothing broken in our educational system except its vulnerability to outside sabotage.

Non-educators frequently urge "disruption" of education as a virtue, rather than something to be avoided. They imagine that embracing Khan Academy videos in a "flipped" classroom is a radical innovation, and is superior to an actual teacher who explains things by drawing on a board (gee--just like Khan Academy, except teachers also have an "interactive" feature!). Such self-styled "reformers" embrace magical thinking that posits that teachers could do better if only they feared for their jobs. The truth is that teachers just need to be left alone to do their jobs, instead of facing incessant interference from the latest fads imposed on them by administrators and legislators, most of whom have never spent a single day in a classroom in front of difficult students.

Want to improve science education? Want to increase the number of science teachers in teacher training programs and earning credentials? Want to start the school year with permanent teachers in every classroom? Then create an environment where adults are properly compensated for their work, where teachers are not blamed for every manifestation of social problems, where meaningless tests given for the sake of "accountability" do not dominate the school year. Science education, and education in general, could benefit from the reform of being free from endless "reforms."

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