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A Shortage of Well-Paid Teachers

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So what do we have in the headlines today? Here's a good one: "Analysis Projects Growing National Shortfall of Teachers." The teacher shortage alarm has been sounded once again, and we're being warned by experts that we'd better get ready for the prospect of significant classroom shortages in the coming years.

The article points out that the looming shortage, should it occur, will be caused by a number of interrelated factors. Enrollments only continue to grow as the population of school-aged children expands. Baby boomers are still on the cusp of retirement (has it always been this way?). Enrollment in teacher education programs is down 35% just in the last five years, they say. In short, we're facing a situation where increased demand is going to be met with reduced supply. You don't have to have passed Econ 101 to know that this is a recipe for disaster.

I've written before that the teacher shortage problem and the teacher retention problem are not the same thing, even if they're related. What I mean by that is that they¬†can be implicated in one another—if too many teachers leave the profession we may end up with a shortage, obviously, so no matter how much attention we pay to the supply side of the equation we still have to ensure that teachers actually want to continue doing the job—but each problem can also be isolated too. Some turnover, for example, is to be expected in a job as intense as teaching can be. Likewise, concerns unrelated to the working conditions of teaching, like a wave of retirements or an increase in the population of school-aged kids, can contribute to a shortage even if there's a steady stream of new teachers entering the classroom every year. However we frame the problem, though, we can still circle back to a key point: If we do right by our teachers both problems will be a lot easier to solve. And we're not doing right by our teachers.

Linda Darling-Hammond, the Stanford professor who runs the outfit that released the report on the shortage crisis, has thought this through and has a novel way of looking at it. She suggests that we pursue what she calls the "4% solution." In short, the idea is that halving the annual attrition rate in teaching, which sits at around 8%, would bring the U.S. in line with other "high performing" nations around the world with regard to teacher turnover and, presumably, go a long way toward resolving the perennial shortage crisis. I like this idea especially because it sets a clear and identifiable target for policymakers, one that the general public can also understand and get behind. It has the potential to be good policy wrapped up in good politics. How often does that happen?

So how do we get to 4%? With targeted policy solutions, that's how: better pay and benefits, "targeted training subsidies" (read: student loan forgiveness programs, reduced tuition for students pursuing teaching as a career, etc.), better mentoring and induction programs, and policies to increase the mobility of teachers across state lines in order to facilitate the creation of a "national teacher supply market." These are all good ideas. I, for one, am a huge fan of streamlining the certification process to ensure that teachers can move freely about the country, and no teacher ever said no to better mentoring. But the top two items, to me, are the most important and the ones least likely to be hampered by red tape. Loan forgiveness programs should be a no-brainer, especially since the federal government makes 90% of all loans to students. All it would take is for an engaged Congress to pass a law making it happen. (I know, I know...)

As for teacher compensation, it's increasingly clear to me that this problem won't be solved until we nationalize it. Just throwing ideas out here, but here are some things to consider:

  • Every working American is already enrolled in a very popular retirement program called Social Security (which, incidentally, is most definitely not going broke). Why do we not have a special program just for educators? No more 401ks, no more benefits lost because they didn't vest, no more states breaking promises to retirees because they just couldn't leave that pile of money alone, no more worrying about whether or not retirement funds will cross state lines. Just get that money deducted from your check, put it away, and look forward to a happy and secure retirement.
  • Everyone seems to agree that basing school funding on property tax revenue is a bad idea. It creates inequity, places a heavy burden on homeowners, and contributes to the artificial inflation (or deflation) of home values. This is to say nothing of the correlated effect it has on people's attitudes toward taxation: the original anti-tax movements of the 1970s started as a revolt against property taxes in California, then spread to all other forms of taxation. I've suggested a new "national" teaching certificate that is accepted in all states and comes with a salary premium provided by the federal government. If it seems far-fetched, consider that the federal government has a long history of using categorical grants to promote educational equity. We've just never tried promoting equity among the people who actually do the work of educating our kids.
  • Just because we put teacher compensation at the top of our national education agenda doesn't mean we have to give up on the concept of local control. In fact, I would argue that paying teachers like the professionals we want them to be will cause them to invest even more than they already do in the communities they serve. Also, taking compensation off the table when it comes to making education policy at the local level would enable school boards and other local policymakers to focus on the educational things that matter—to say nothing of the fact that teachers more assured of their professional status would almost certainly demand a larger role in the policymaking process. That, from where I sit, would only be a good thing.

What we're doing now isn't working. Addressing the compensation issue could help trigger a cascading set of positive changes in the way our schools operate. If better pay led to more teacher movement into the places where teachers are needed most, our shortage problems might disappear. If it led to greater teacher empowerment, training and montoring programs would improve substantially—no one protects entry into a new profession like proud professionals themselves do. If it increased the competitiveness of admission to teacher education programs—and why wouldn't the promise of a substantially discounted or even free college education increase that competitiveness?—we'd have opportunities to be more selective about who enters teaching in the first place.

In short, we don't just have a shortage of teachers on the horizon. We have a shortage of well-paid teachers. It's past time to start doing something about it.

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