“I’m curious to know how many of us around this table have been school teachers.”
When that question was asked at a recent dinner party, of the twelve people at the table, seven of us–including my wife and me–raised their hands. We twelve certainly did not represent a cross-section of America. Ten of us were over 70 years old, the other two in their mid-30’s. All were college graduates, and most had earned advanced degrees.
But still, seven out of twelve of us used to be schoolteachers!
Actually, I was not surprised, because whenever I have asked that question, at least half in every group said that they had taught school at some point. Turnover is a huge problem in public education, with a reported 40-50% of new teachers leaving the field sometime in their first five years on the job.
American society is full of former teachers because teaching has a far higher turnover than traditional occupations like law, engineering, medicine, architecture, and accounting. As the Learning Policy Institute noted five years ago, “The teaching workforce continues to be a leaky bucket, losing hundreds of thousands of teachers each year—the majority of them before retirement age.” According to Penn professor Richard Ingersoll, “Even nurses tend to stick around longer, and the only fields with higher quit rates are prison guards, child care workers, and secretaries.”
Ingersoll is himself a former public school teacher. “One of the big reasons I quit was sort of intangible but very real,” Ingersoll told me. “It’s just a lack of respect. Teachers in schools do not call the shots. They’re told what to do; it’s a very disempowered line of work.”
When a persistent but solvable problem like ‘teacher churn’ is allowed to fester, it’s always instructive to ask “Who benefits from not solving the problem”? I explored that in my 2017 book, “Addicted to Reform.” Here’s what I found :
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.
But if school boards help new teachers succeed by mentoring them as they learn classroom management and other tricks of the trade, then churn is not a way to save money. However, my experience as a reporter has been that many, perhaps most, school systems are content to let new teachers ‘sink or swim’ on their own.
I nominate schools and colleges of education as the primary beneficiaries of churn. After all, someone has to train the replacements. Consider one state, Illinois: Its institutions of higher education recently graduated over 43,000 education majors, presumably the majority of them trained to be teachers. The largest producer of teachers, Illinois State University, has 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 only 10% opt out, the K-12 schools would still 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.
Our pool of ‘former teachers’ is growing larger and larger, unfortunately. “Exhausted and underpaid” teachers are leaving in greater numbers this year because of COVID-19 and its ramifications. A shortage of teachers in the US was already a growing problem before the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly in high poverty schools. The shortage has worsened during the pandemic. Some schools have closed when too many teaching positions could not be filled, while others grapple with higher than normal teacher vacancies, leaving the remaining teachers overworked.
In Florida, teacher vacancies this year increased by more than 67% compared with August 2020, and a 38.7% increase from August 2019.
When teachers suddenly resign or contract COVID-19, administrators must find substitutes, and that’s become a real problem. “They are called upon to teach in schools where children are likely still unvaccinated and might not be required to wear masks. In some cases, they’re filling in for teachers who are quarantining at home after being exposed to COVID-19. And many substitute teachers are in an age group that is more vulnerable to the disease. ‘A number of our substitute teachers are retired educators, and in many cases, they simply are not willing to risk the COVID challenges to come to work,’ (Superintendent Michelle) Reid says.”
Making teaching more attractive and more remunerative are essential steps. That will attract better candidates, but we won’t be out of the woods unless we change aspects of the teacher’s job that are belittling and sometimes humiliating. Teachers can’t make or take a phone call when they need to, or use the bathroom when nature calls. Rarely do they get to watch their colleagues at work and then share reactions and ideas, which is something most professionals take for granted.
All that has to change, but, unfortunately, none of this seems to be a priority of the U.S. Department of Education or the political leadership in any state that I am familiar with. Instead, public education’s opponents are using COVID-19 as cover for their efforts to fund religious education, create private school vouchers, expand for-profit virtual charter schools, and allow parents to deduct school tuition from their taxes, all strategies to defund public education.
Today’s political climate is making matters much worse for teachers. Many public schools and their school boards have become flash points for the anti-vaccination, anti-masking crowd, making teachers feel even more stressed. We should expect the exodus to continue until our political leaders develop the courage to take strong action to defend public education.
I should end with my own question: Where is Miguel Cardona, the U.S. Secretary of Education, on the serious challenges facing public education? COVID-19 notwithstanding, Dr. Cardona started off in a sweet spot. He replaced the absolute worst U.S. Secretary of Education imaginable, a woman who worked overtime to undercut public schools. Replacing Betsy DeVos was like being hired by Brinks to replace a guy who drove around with the back door of the armored car wide open and money spilling out onto the street. Just close the damn back door, and you’re off to a great start!
An abundance of good will greeted the new Secretary. And we anticipated some obvious first steps, akin to closing that armored car door. But all I hear is silence……