School & District Management Opinion

Let’s Talk Solutions to the Teacher Shortage Problem

By Dave Powell — April 26, 2016 6 min read
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Everybody around here has been excited lately because the state of Hawaii is desperate: we’ve got teachers, and Hawaii needs them. One guy fom New Jersey is specifically targeting the unemployed—"no teaching certificate or experience required"—selling a painless move to paradise as “a pretty sick deal” and playing up the positives. “You get to mold the leaders of tomorrow,” he gushes, “and, in your off time, hang out in one of the most exquisitely beautiful places on earth.” It sounds so easy. His post has been liked 241,000 times on Facebook.

But this is not what it appears to be. “Sometimes there’s no letting reality get in the way of a good sales pitch,” as an article about the problem puts it. “That’s a good thing to remember for the many people seduced by stories gone viral on the internet this month about Hawaii’s incredible job opportunities for eager beach-goers willing to do a stint as a teacher.” That reality is that Hawaii is a really, really expensive place to live—especially for teachers.

Teacher recruitment and retention is a complicated and multifaceted issue but I’d be willing to bet that at least some of the issues we face revolve around financial incentives, even if teachers swear up and down that they’re not in it for the money. Let me say that another way: I don’t think the districts that are attracting new teachers (if they need them) are always doing it because they offer better pay, but I do think that offering better pay is an obvious solution to the problem of attracting new teachers. Show me the effective teacher who doesn’t want a raise and I’ll show you a unicorn with wings. Yes, of course, working conditions matter—I, for one, would have been more than willing to trade several thousand dollars in salary for more autonomy and more time to do my work well when I was a classroom teacher—but that trade-off depended on the idea that I could first afford to meet my family’s needs. If a teacher can’t afford a mortgage and a car payment and eggs and milk and a vacation in those long, languid summer months “off,” then all the time in the world isn’t going to make the job that much better.

If you want to understand what’s going on in Hawaii, go read this article published by Alia Wong in 2013. Wong hits right on one of the most persistent problems in teacher recruitment: the salaries we pay our teachers just simply aren’t enough to keep up with the cost of living in most of the places where teachers work. That’s as true in places like suburban Washington, D.C. as it is in rural areas and as it is out in Honolulu. Our chronic failure to pay teachers like professionals is exacerbated by the way we spend the limited resources we’re willing to set aside for education. We tend to think of providing funds for education in terms of maintaining facilities or buying new technology, and we measure it in terms of how much is spent “per pupil.” We don’t tend to think of it as an investment in human capital, as the economists like to say. And I’m not talking about the students. I’m talking about the teachers.

What I mean is this: things would be a lot different if we prioritized funding competitive teacher salaries over some of the other things we spend money on instead. Take, for example, our amazingly inefficient approach to “fixing” schools today. It revolves around purchasing expensive tests to decide which teachers are doing their jobs and which ones aren’t, then opening new schools to address the perception that some teachers just aren’t doing their jobs. I’m not going to argue that some teachers aren’t, and I’m also not going to argue that we should keep funneling money into schools that don’t hold up their end of the bargain. But if more efficient use of limited resources is what we’re after, we ought to be able to come up with a better solution than this.

We could, for example, provide more resources to the people who actually do the work of educating students. Too expensive, you say? I shook out the couch cushions and found some money. This article says we’re spending $10 billion on classroom technology every year—ten billion. President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative earmarked $4.35 billion (yes, again, that’s billion with a B) for a variety of approaches to school reform, none of which actually improved the standard of living for teachers (or, for that matter, had much of a positive impact on the test scores we seem to care so much about). That’s $14.35 billion dollars right there that we could have been spending on something else. That’s almost enough to write every teacher in America a check for $5,000.

Unfortunately, talking about teacher salaries has become a dangerous third rail in education policymaking. At best it’s labeled crass and inappropriate; at worst, it’s used to portray teachers as selfish money grubbing hacks who care more about their benefits packages than they do about your kids. But this is a serious issue. If we don’t get real about paying teachers like professionals, what reason do we have to think that they’ll actually live up to our expectations?

This doesn’t have to be so hard. The federal government distributes funds every year to schools to aid in the education of underprivileged children, although the formulas it uses are more complex than they need to be. Still, the precedent has been set: money could be earmarked to provide a cost-of-living adjustment to teachers that supplements the salaries they receive from local sources. Even better would be to couple it with a policy approach that provided a workaround for the patchwork of state certification requirements, enabling teachers to cross state lines without having to incur substantial costs just to have their right to teach verified again in another state. You like the idea behind Teach for America? How about a true national teacher corps—a public one, not a “charity"—that provided the ability to teach in any school in any state after meeting certain requirements, and came with a salary premium to boot? It could be done. The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards created a certificate for accomplished teachers that is accepted in many states. Maybe their help could be enlisted here.

There are other options. No matter how you slice it, the federal government earns billions in subsidies by charging interest on student loans; why not use some of that to forgive the loans of people who make a career in teaching? Just as secretaries should pay a lower tax rate than their millionaire bosses, it seems fair that a teacher’s education costs should be lower than those of, say, a hedge fund manager. As it is now, two students attending Harvard—one of whom who heads to Main Street after graduation to teach your kids, the other of whom heads to Wall Street to manage your retirement account—are treated the same way when they repay any loans they’ve incurred. It might be too much to call this one the Jimmy Buffett Rule, but if you want people to work hard, and work well, you need to let them find time for leisure too. Just saying.

Those are just two ideas. Maybe there are better ones out there. Better pay won’t solve all our problems but it seems like a prerequisite for real reform and it offers a solution that should appeal to people all across the political spectrum. Progressives should be drawn to the idea that higher salaries could help equalize the distribution of teachers in economically distressed areas. After all, a child’s access to good teaching shouldn’t be decided by his or her zip code. Market worshippers, on the other hand, are convinced that competition is good for business; I can’t think of a better way to make teaching more competitive than to improve the way teachers are compensated. It seems like a no brainer to me. All we have to do is come up with the political will to make it happen.

The opinions expressed in The K-12 Contrarian 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.