A Surplus of FORMER Teachers

“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……

15 thoughts on “A Surplus of FORMER Teachers

  1. Ditto for health care workers….half are considering leaving or reducing hours—- one in 5 planning to quit or significantly change their work life….although the educational sector has its special considerations, it’s good to look across sectors to see that American workers are not feeling that they have the supports they need to do their jobs well. Plenty of solutions (many of which have been around for decades)—TIME TO ACT!

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  2. My mother taught school for 26 years, and when I told her I wanted to be a teacher too, she said, “You don’t have the stamina for it. Why don’t you write instead?” I remember her trying to convince us all to stay home and just rest at Christmas time (so she could) when we wanted to go visit the relatives. I remember her exhausted at the end of the year, writing up final grades and reports. I remember her working with kids in her classroom whose parents couldn’t or wouldn’t take them to an optometrist, so they sat in the front of the classroom, until my mother took them to an optometrist on her own nickel, and made a deal with the optometrist to make them glasses but to try to keep the price down since Mom was paying. I remember her bringing pancake flour and eggs and milk to the kind cooks and asking them to make pancakes and eggs for the little characters who arrived in her classroom hungry. I remember her tutoring children for free who needed extra help because she wanted them to succeed. I think teachers make a HUGE difference in their students’ lives, and because I grew up with a dedicated teacher, it makes me sad to hear about the terrible turnover–tough for the teachers, tough for the kids. I agree with you, something needs to be done to improve the miserable situation. In my opinion, teachers have never been paid what they should have been paid, because between parents and teachers, kids’ ability to succeed in life is critically affected, and teachers should be paid well for helping create decent, educated human beings!

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    • I deleted a graf or two speculating about the question of whether those of us who left teaching just weren’t tough enough to make it in what I know to be an exceptionally demanding job. I spent 40+ years in the back of classrooms, watching teachers and students, but only four in front of the classroom. The back was easier, by far! Your Mom must have been very special….

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  3. This is a fine piece but I don’t think you hammered home another very negative element of the churn, that the teachers who are leaving have largely gone through their “worst” years–as in least experienced and most likely to have problems such as classroom management–as teachers and all of that experience from which they’ve presumably learned then moves out the door, to be replaced with people who will make similar mistakes due to inexperience. Nor do young teachers have the same levels of knowledge of the subjects they teach and breadth of pedagogy as mid-career or older teachers.

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    • John, I do touch on this in Addicted to Reform, which I hope you will take a look at if you have time. Some districts, notably DC when I was reporting, were spending more on the salaries of those who supervised and watched and evaluated (and demoralized) teachers than on the actual teachers. That’s another reason teachers left–they weren’t trusted.

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    • This is my 33rd year and the last 5 years are like nothing I have ever seen before. It’s disheartening, discouraging and I’m retiring in June.

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      • I’m sad and sorry that the last five years have been a downer, but I am not surprised. What bothers me greatly is the failure of those in power to speak up for teachers and students. COVID was also an opportunity to reimagine public education, but everyone keeps trying to ‘get back to normal,’ as if ‘normal’ were just fine.

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  4. Who gains when we have a teacher “shortage?” The “anybody can teach” crowd.

    Who gains when we have a teacher “exodus?” The “NO! You are NOT qualified to be a teacher because you went to school” crowd.

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  5. This is from Henry Levin, the distinguished economist and educator now at Teachers College, Columbia. I am posting it with his permission.

    “I love to read your analysis. Thanks.
    One concern that I have, though, is what is meant as a teacher shortage. There can be a large surplus of newly trained teachers, but they may not be larger than the shortfall if we add the adjective “qualified” or “promising” teachers. My guess is that less than half of the teachers who are “certified” each year meet the standards that you or I would set for minimal qualifications and capability of strong development in the profession. Often the mistake is made of just counting the addition to the potential teacher labor force of the “surplus” of credentials relative to the openings. I think that we both agree that teacher quality and development characterize only a portion of these teachers.

    Having said that, even among the truly qualified teachers (teaching quality and further development), the lack of professional reinforcement, respect, and stature and the potential mobility in terms of pay and seniority and career growth limit even those (perhaps, especially those) who are the most promising. I was on the school board in Palo Alto, and my son, Jesse, on the Pacifica school board. Persistent shortages in special education, foreign languages, and other specialties were persistent, even though we found teachers with other backgrounds to staff classrooms. You are right that we need to evaluate the training, rewards, incentives, professional status, and other dimensions to get and retain that portion of the potential teacher labor force that best meets our educational standards.

    Sadly, even among teachers who could develop into highly effective professionals with good support and development opportunities, lack the high quality professional development opportunities that would provide the growth and mobility. It is still a profession of credentials rather than substantive quality for teacher training and development. We can change that, but the cost of such a system and teacher evaluation would have to change to accommodate it. In my view as an economist, the benefits would exceed the costs considerably. (You may have an interest in our website, http://www.cbcse.org, and particularly the results for improving social and emotional learning.”

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  6. Professor Levin offers a much-welcomed expansion of the gist of my comment, John. (I’m sure you covered these things in your book, which I have yet to read.) I’m retired now, but in the two professional jobs I had in my career–at the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Center for Civic Education–I was very glad to be involved in teacher professional development institutes and workshops, including designing and directing them along with constitutional scholars and pedagogical experts, while also taking advantage of the participating teachers’ own expertise in these areas. All teachers need these free, intense engagements, which truly develop communities that last for decades through productive social media exchanges and the good old telephone. But, again, I’m preaching to the choir.

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  7. I am posting this thoughtful response from Curtis Johnson, an insightful observer of public education’s challenges and accomplishments, with his permission.
    “Let me add a little to your well conceived rant about teachers leaving the profession.

    As you know, with the exception of the schools run either by districts or charters that recognize the primacy of the teacher, that offer respect, that give teachers the space to exercise something like real authority over their work, most schools run in ways that guarantee that teachers working in them will eventually conclude that the job is not worth having. Or they’ll just acquiesce to whatever the drill is — and the students suffer the consequences. Maybe that’s standardized tests, maybe it’s the latest fad — whatever, they just cave to it.

    Now, we have the pandemic layered over that. We are seeing in the raw that this system was inherently custodial; we kept kids in school so both parents could work. I know it’s not that simple, but this condition really stood out.

    More importantly, most schools operated as though the technology revolution had not happened. Sure, some got it; they used technology for what it does best; they allowed kids to learn the way they learn everything these days. But most schools were operated (notice I’m not saying teachers, because most places they had little voice, almost no participation in the big decisions) by people who thought that replicating what was going on in the classroom qualified as remote instruction. Predictably, it was even more boring in that mode and the kids rebelled; some even disappeared.

    The media, grown lazy from downsizing, turned complicit in this myth. Story after story says “Remote learning doesn’t work.” “Remote learning inferior to in-person learning.” “Learning loss” is what kids experienced. No one seems to blame the system for what happened, least of all the people in charge —- which is not the teachers.

    Education is an industry. And it is the last one to recognize that at least by about 2007, the world really changed. Teachers unions seem to be trying to turn back the calendar; I’m really sorry about this, because they are fighting a losing cause. Schooling will never be the same. The sooner we restore teachers to the primary role the better. They are the only ones who can motivate kids. They are the ones most in touch and they understand why Johnny or Jane doesn’t get it yet.

    So for now, yes John, you’ll still find most groups with former teachers in them. And most of them left, not because of money, but because it was a dead-end, soul-dissatisfying job. It could be different.

    Thanks for reading this.”

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