We float aimlessly in an endless sea of public education issues, so it’s understandable many tune out the noise. If we could only get to the island oasis on the horizon, we’d be safe from the dangers of open waters and see clearly how we fix public schools. That island is an investment in public school teachers.
It’s time to put on blinders and wear noise-canceling headphones, and direct our full efforts toward recruiting and retaining quality teachers from all backgrounds. Most of the education research waters are cloudy and muddy, yet one area is crystal clear, as clear as the blue waters of the Virgin Islands, and it’s the impact of the teacher on student achievement.
For decades, we’ve ignored the teacher, or simply blamed the teacher. It’s time to put teachers first. None of our efforts to improve schools will matter if we don’t ensure we recruit and retain our most talented teachers. The best way to do so is simple – pay teachers better.
Some will argue that throwing money at the problem doesn’t fix anything. It depends on where you throw the money. I assure you, throwing money at the teaching profession will improve public education among all socioeconomic and racial groups. Studies have shown even modest pay increases have helped retain teachers. Significant pay increases would increase the applicant pool, but more importantly, increase the talent pool, which has to be the first focus. It would also retain teachers, helping to build consistency within our schools.
The Economic Policy Institute determined in a study focused on teacher recruitment and retention that 13.8 percent of teachers are leaving their school or profession annually. The share of schools trying to fill a vacancy tripled from 2011-12 to 2015-16, and the share of schools finding it difficult to fill vacancies increased from 19.7 percent to 36.2 percent during that same time span. From the 2008-2009 to 2015-2016 school years, there was a 15.4 percent drop in education degrees awarded and a 27.4 percent drop in the number of people completing programs. According to EPI, it costs a district $21,000 to fill a vacancy, at an annual cost of $8 billion nationally.
“A shortage of teachers harms students, teachers, and the public education system as a whole,” the report stated. “Lack of sufficient, qualified teachers and the staff instability that accompanies turnover threaten students’ ability to learn and reduce teachers’ effectiveness, and high teacher turnover consumes economic resources that could be better deployed elsewhere. The teacher shortage makes it more difficult to build a solid reputation for teaching and to professionalize it, which further contributes to perpetuating the shortage. In addition, the fact that the shortage is distributed so unevenly among students of different socioeconomic backgrounds challenges the U.S. education system’s goal of provident a sound education equitably to all children.”
In other words, it’s destroying our schools. So what have we done about it? Thus far, we’ve lowered the bar to become a teacher. We’ve hired more alternative certified individuals and we’ve created a system where 1 in 4 teachers have five or fewer years of experience and nearly half of them will quit before their fifth year. We’ve accelerated the demise of teaching and the exodus through our current policies, when we should have raised the bar and paid teachers more.
The EPI and many others refer to this as a shortage, but it’s actually an exodus. There are countless fully certified teachers who don’t teach anymore. There are countless individuals who consider teaching but don’t pursue the career. We don’t have a shortage of willing individuals who want to be a teacher, we have a shortage of people who want to deal with the working conditions of being a teacher for the pay it offers.
We know why teachers leave, and others don’t pursue it. Low pay, challenging school environment, and weak professional development support and recognition. A salary increase in an urban school district can attract more applicants, a study titled, The Effect of a District-Level Salary Increase on Teacher Recruitment by Heather J. Hough, published by Stanford University, found. The San Francisco Unified School District implemented salary increases for newer teachers and increased the number of applicants by 10 percent. Improvements in the applicant pool can lead to an increase in the quality of new hires.
Let’s put aside research for the rest of this article. It’s common sense to assume elevating salaries will attract more individuals to a profession. Yes, it’s expensive, but it would eliminate costs in recruitment, retention, and training. We also know qualify people are the most important aspect of success in nearly any environment, from coaching, to business, to public schools. Charismatic and talented people make all the difference. Increasing the applicant pool will also increase the talent pool, providing a greater amount of choice for districts, making the profession more competitive, and improving the professions professional profile. In the long run, teaching would become a destination for our most talented people, most of which pursue careers based on salary.
Will a significant salary increase, such as the minimum salary of $60,000 per year proposed by Bernie Sanders, or paying experienced teachers near or at six-figures, solve every public education issue. No, but it will allow districts to address other issues without worrying about if their building will be staffed, perhaps save money in the long run, and address one half of the most important aspect of public education – the teacher and student.
Currently, we are short nearly 400,000 teachers nationally. Traditionally the profession was reserved for educated women, but they now have more options than they did in the 1970s, there is more occupational choice for skilled and talented people, and the public perception of teaching is poor, dwindling the pipeline of new teachers. This adversely affects our children’s achievement, impacts our ability to recruit minority teachers and teachers in socioeconomically disadvantaged areas, and will continue to perpetuate the perception of failing schools. It’s really a simple solution. Increase teacher pay across the board, from new hires to experienced teachers, and watch public education improve in America.