“Harder to Become, Easier to Be” (A path to ending teacher shortages)

A number of states and districts are experiencing teacher shortages, with Illinois and Florida apparently at the top of the list.  From my perspective, teacher shortages are a case of the chickens coming home to roost. Two reasons for the shortages: 1) Not enough new blood and 2) a higher rate of departure by veterans,  and both are the result of how badly we treat teachers.

A constant drumbeat of hostile ‘news’ about schools and teaching is keeping young people from choosing the field, while the practice of mistreating teachers in the name of higher test scores is driving some very good teachers out of the classroom.  

Exhibit A for the latter might be this letter I received from an experienced teacher in an eastern state.  Below is an excerpt:

“Let me tell you what a horrific day I had at work.  OK, so yesterday I had to spend the entire morning proctoring the state science assessment for 5th graders. Today I was called to the office and told I needed to proctor yet another test for the 5th graders, whose results would be used to determine what ‘track’ they will be on in middle school. The test had four sub-tests. I was told that I had to pick up all the fifth grade ESL students and get their tests and subtest answer sheets and bring them into another room. None of the classroom teachers knew anything about this test, either.

So my ESL colleague and I took the kids to a separate room and started the test. ESL kids get ‘extended time’…but while we’re giving the test, the noise level outside the room is unbelievable–the assistant principal is yelling to the secretaries because she won’t get off her butt to ask them a question but would rather yell from her desk. Talk about disrespect for the ESL kids.

We started at 9:30. The first two parts took until 11:30, then we had to dismiss the kids to their art, music, gym, etc, classes. After those classes they had to come back to us to be tested on math. Oh, and by the way, we needed calculators for them, but the administrators ‘forgot’ to tell any of the teachers about this. Then LATER we found out the kids were supposed to get a reference sheet about math terms, but the administrators said “just give them the test anyway…” Then came lunch and recess, and they had to come back again because they STILL weren’t done. When we finally finished, it was 2:30. Remember, we started at 9:30.

TOMORROW, I have to give them ANOTHER test. Friday, I have to give them ANOTHER test, then they spend the rest of their day finishing up the ESL test on the computer…and the computers keep crashing.

I called the ESL person in charge and told them about the proctor who was reading instead of doing his job. She told me that the only reason I was complaining was that I didn’t want the proctors there in the first place.

I’ve called in the union. I don’t think they will actually do anything, but this is child abuse and MY NAME is on these tests. And these scores go on MY evaluation.

Trader Joe’s looks better every day.”

How many gifted teachers move on for similar reasons?  Let’s hope the woman persevered, but the odds are that she either chose another line of work or–a worse prospect–stayed in the classroom with her hopes diminished and the fire of her idealism extinguished.

Her story is hardly unique, because for years the so-called ‘School Reformers’ have blamed teachers for school shortcomings, to justify policies that have narrowed the curriculum, increased testing, and removed teachers based on student scores. The resulting ‘churn’ hurts the field, damages morale, and brings added uncertainty into the lives of students.

However, here’s a surprise: Not everyone loses when teachers leave in droves. 

Reporters are trained to ask “Who Benefits?” because, even in the worst of situations, somebody ends up benefitting. For example, while drivers lose when roads are not maintained, those potholes also mean that auto repair shops make more money.  And while all residents suffer in a city like Flint, Michigan, with inadequate or unsafe drinking water, those who bottle and sell water make money. And when reporters dig deeper, they may find that the beneficiaries of disasters are also the major obstacles to remedying unfair situations.

So let’s ask that all-important question about the exceptionally high rate of turnover–some call it ‘churn’–in our teaching force: Who benefits from teacher turnover?

Precise “churn” numbers are hard to come by, but perhaps 30-40% of all new teachers leave the profession within their first five years. Turnover is not evenly or randomly distributed: teachers in low-income neighborhoods leave in much larger numbers. Minority teachers, who’ve been aggressively recruited, leave faster than their white peers, generally because they’ve been assigned to the toughest high poverty schools.  I’ve been in schools with turnover rates of 25-35% every year.

Turnover is not inherently bad, of course.  When older teachers ‘age out’ of the profession, they retire and are replaced. Alternative certification programs like Teach for America operate from the premise that most of its ‘graduates’ will not make a career out of teaching but will move on at the end of their 2-year commitment, adding to the churn.  Some new teachers turn out to be pretty bad and are let go, and others discover that teaching is a lot harder than they expected and look for greener pastures.

Whatever its causes, churn has had a profound impact on our teaching force. As recently as 1987 when schools enrolled 45 million kids, they were hiring about 65,000 new teachers a year.  Thirty years later, schools (now enrolling 53 million students) were hiring 200,000 new teachers every year. In percentage terms, students increased about 9 percent, while new hires grew by nearly 200 percent.  Today 12 percent of all public school teachers are in their first or second year. According to Education Week, in eight states, 15 percent of the teachers are new. Within states, however, the percentages vary, meaning that in some districts the percentage of rookies may be much higher.

According to Education Week‘s analysis of the OCR data, Florida reported the highest proportion of novice teachers in the country, with about a quarter of its teachers in their first or second years. The District of Columbia and Colorado, both with nearly 18 percent of their teaching forces qualifying as new, also came in at the top of the list.

Nationally, one-quarter of our teachers have less than five years of experience. By contrast, In 1987 the modal ‘years of experience’ was 15—we had more teachers with 15 years of teaching experience than any other.  Today the modal teacher is in her first or second year.

Churn hurts students. Researchers from Stanford, the University of Michigan, and the University of Virginia came to that conclusion in their study, “How Teacher Turnover Harms Student Achievement”:

Turnover affects morale and the professional culture at a school. It weakens the knowledge base of the staff about students and the community. It weakens collegiality, professional support, and trust that teachers depend on in their efforts to improve achievement. 

So, who benefits when schools have to find replacements for so many teachers every year?  The obvious answer would seem to be school boards (and taxpayers), because green teachers are cheaper than white-haired veterans.  Payments into retirement plans are lower, because those dollars are a function of salaries, and new teachers earn less.

I nominate schools and colleges of education as the primary beneficiaries of churn.  After all, someone has to train the replacements. Consider one state with a teacher shortage, Illinois: In 2012, its institutions of higher education graduated over 43,000 education majors, presumably the majority of them trained to be teachers. The largest producer of teachers, Illinois State University, had more than 5000 would-be teachers enrolled, and its website reports that one of four new teachers hired in Illinois between 2008-2011 was an ISU graduate.  Illinois K-12 schools employ about 145,000 teachers. If 20% leave in a given year, that creates 29,000 vacancies–I.E., jobs for 29,000 replacements. If 10% opt out, the K-12 schools need 14,500 trained replacements.

But if only 5% of Illinois’ teachers left every year, there would be just 7,250 job openings for the state’s 43,000 graduates who majored in education.  So is it in the interest of Illinois higher education and its teacher-training institutions to help make teaching a job that more people want to keep? Or do they benefit from the churn because it means their classrooms are full and their professors occupied?

As the lawyers say, “Asked and answered.”

But why pick on Illinois?  Teacher turnover is also high in California, which, according to the highly regarded EdSource, has among the highest student-to- teacher/counselor/librarian/administrator ratios in the nation. Having the responsibility for 35 – 45 high school students who face severe poverty and trauma makes teaching beyond challenging. Many teachers have over 200 students each day. Is it possible to teach Science or English (including writing and rewriting!) to 200 students?

The astute and tireless Tim Slekar, who works in Wisconsin, reminds me that ‘churn’ isn’t keeping teacher education institutions full, because young people are staying away in droves.  He recently told The Cap Times, “I’ve sat here and done it more than once where an interested student and their parents come in, and the parents say, ‘Yeah, she wants to be a teacher but we told her we’re not supportive of that decision,’” Slekar said. “How is it that parents are telling their kids that we don’t want them to be teachers?”

And it’s not just Wisconsin, the focus of that article.  Here’s a national view that I urge you to read.

Every institution in America that prepares teachers is on the horns of a dilemma.  They want classroom teaching to be seen as an attractive career option so undergraduates will choose to major in education instead of, say, sociology or nursing. But, on the other hand, they benefit when teaching jobs are plentiful, because an exodus of teachers from the classroom means their own enrollment will not go down.  But if teachers stay, then the need for new teachers drops, and enrollment at teacher-training institutions falls. Follow the money!

So, who benefits from our wasteful churning system? Who benefits when teaching turns out to be an unsatisfying profession for so many?

If I am right about schools of education and school boards being the beneficiaries of churn, then it follows that neither of them can be entrusted with the responsibility for making teaching a genuine profession.  In fact, it may turn out that schools of education and school boards have been (and will continue to be) obstacles to genuine change.  Instead, we ought to be taking a hard look at School Reform policies that create or exacerbate turmoil in teaching. 

It’s essential to follow the money.  Not to pick on Illinois, but in that state, where the population of both students and teachers is shrinking, the number of administrators is actually increasing!  “From 2014 to 2018, student enrollment at Illinois K-12 public school districts fell by 2%, reflected by a nearly identical percentage drop in those districts’ total teachers during that time,” according to reporter Adam Schuster writing in Illinois Policy.  Shouldn’t those dollars be spent on teachers and curriculum materials, or returned to taxpayers?

For schools to prosper, let’s make it more difficult to become a teacher (by raising entry standards and improving training).  At the same time, let’s make it easier to be a teacher (by raising their salaries, improving their working conditions, and enlarging their responsibility for curriculum, methods, and student evaluation).  

Happily, this prescription fits on a bumper sticker: “Harder to Become, Easier to Be”

I welcome your reactions at Themerrowreport.com.  Thanks….

(This essay is adapted from “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education.”)




3 thoughts on ““Harder to Become, Easier to Be” (A path to ending teacher shortages)

  1. Also benefiting from teacher churn are organizations that contract with school systems to recruit teachers and perform associated functions, such as induction.


  2. Blaming schools of education for the turnover rate is a cop out. Those same schools of education are being blamed by policy makers for not recruiting enough teachers to address the shortage.

    The beginning of the post tells it all: working conditions and low remuneration drive teachers to change jobs and professions. We need to invest in schools and in teachers, not circle the firing squad.


  3. Your critique of Pete Buttegeig’s comments did not go far enough — he stated (or at least implied, I’d have to re-watch the segment) that students in a classroom with a good kindergarten teacher averaged $300,000 in additional earnings. That’s not what Raj Chetty’s research found — his study concluded that $300,000 was the aggregate lifetime earnings increase for the entire class. (https://eyeonearlyeducation.com/2018/11/29/a-long-term-look-at-early-education/)

    So, if there were 25 kids in the kindergarten class, the average student’s earnings increase was $12,000. And, that’s over an entire working lifetime — if, say, a person worked for 40 years, that would make the annual increase more like $300. Not “chopped liver,” but six bucks a week is hardly enough to build public policy — let alone a presidential campaign — upon


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