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Teacher Recruitment Outlook Is Bleak

A looming teacher shortage is now worse than ever ("Interest in Becoming a Teacher Continues to Decline Among U.S. High School Graduates," (act.org, Jul. 6). According to the Condition of Future Educators 2015, only four percent of the 1.9 million 2015 high school graduates who took the ACT test said they wanted a career as a teacher, counselor or administrator.  That compares with five percent in 2014 and seven percent in 2010. Moreover, those who are interested on average have lower achievement levels.

The news confirms fears that have been expressed for years.  I'm not at all surprised.  I've written often before about the appalling state of teacher morale across the country.  It's a combination of lack of respect from all stakeholders, incessant pressure to boost test scores, unimpressive salaries, and deplorable working conditions.  The latest body blow is the move to eliminate tenure.  Yet critics persist in claiming that teachers are actually overpaid for the school year when salaries and benefits are combined. If that's so, then why isn't there a flood of applicants?  I still haven't heard a convincing response.

Yet I hasten to point out that the teacher shortage is more nuanced than the new report headlines.  Math, science, special education, and ESL teachers are much in demand. The same can't be said about social studies, physical education, drivers education, and home economics teachers.  It's not that the latter group of teachers is not important.  Instead, it's that there is an oversupply of teachers in those fields.

What the report also fails to address is the retention side of the issue. With about half of teachers in K-12 leaving the profession within the first five years of employment, the churn is serious.  Burnout is one of the reasons given for the turnover.  Even the best teachers are not immune.  In fact, it's likely that they are most susceptible because they insist on maintaining high standards amid pressure to graduate everyone. 

Symptoms of burnout manifest themselves differently.  For some, it's evident in the high rate of absenteeism among teachers. According to the U.S. Department of Education, slightly more than one in four teachers missed 10 days or more of school in 2013-14 ("1 in 4 Teachers Miss 10 or More School Days, Analysis Finds," Education Week, Jun. 27). For other teachers, it's apparent in the cynicism they exhibit toward efforts to improve instruction. 

To put the problem in proper perspective, there are 3.2 million teachers in 98,000 public schools in the country.  I don't think it's possible to recruit and retain the best and the brightest college grads to the field because of the numbers involved.  Yes, we can recruit some Ivy Leaguers and their ilk.  But I doubt we can keep them for very long.  Reality has a way of eroding ideals.  Dramatically higher salaries will undoubtedly play a positive role.  Yet I don't think it alone is enough.  There has to be respect for the important work that teachers do. 

I was brought up in a home where education was sacred.  My mother studied my report cards and questioned me at length about any comment any of my teachers made.  If I didn't answer satisfactorily, she would request an appointment with my teachers. She always insisted that teachers deserve the benefit of the doubt in any issue.  But how many students have parents like my mother?

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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