The news now is full of stories about teacher shortages. States and districts are putting up giant billboards, and granting emergency certificates so that people who have not even finished their teacher education program can teach school and teachers certified to teach one subject can teach another subject they are wholly unqualified to teach.
How did we get to this point?
The trail is not hard to follow. When college-educated women had few choices other than being a nurse, a secretary or a teacher, we were able to get great teachers for next to nothing. Young women were urged by their parents to become teachers as a form of insurance policy, in case they became widowed or divorced. Teaching jobs were seen as recession-proof. Teachers were highly respected because they were seen as having a “vocation,” not just a job, and because they were typically among the most educated people in their community.
Then each link in this chain broke. No longer confined to nursing, secretarial work and teaching, college-educated women started going into higher-status, higher-paying professions in great numbers. As time went on, teachers were less likely to have more education than the parents in their community. Teachers colleges became a fallback destination. Teachers’ salaries declined relative to the salaries of other professionals. In response, teachers unionized, changing public perception of teaching as no longer a vocation but an occupation like any other in which the occupants were in it for themselves, not the children.
When districts began to fire highly regarded teachers whose students did not perform well on standardized tests, teachers were furious. From their point of view, the public was blaming teachers for problems caused by rapidly rising poverty among children, growing inequality of incomes, appalling rates of violence and incarceration in urban communities—problems over which they had no control. They began to give up, move on or retire in ever-larger numbers.
Then came the Great Recession. Rather than being recession-proof, teaching became even more vulnerable to recession than most other occupations.
Why should it surprise us that young people, observing all of this, would start to avoid teaching careers like the plague?
We have a choice. We can continue to address the problem with billboards, small signing bonuses and emergency teaching certificates, or we can address the underlying causes by using the strategies used by the countries with the best-performing education systems. They are recruiting their teachers from the top half of their college-going high school graduates, not the bottom half, like the United States. They are transforming teachers colleges into high-status institutions of higher education by greatly reducing their numbers, locating them in their top-tier universities, making them much more selective, and increasing the rigor of the teacher preparation programs. Before they allow new teachers to teach full time, they apprentice them to master teachers for at least a year, so they can learn their craft.
Perhaps most important is what these countries have done to make teaching a more attractive occupation for high achievers. Beginning teachers in Finland are paid what beginning engineers are paid. In Ontario and Singapore they enjoy higher starting salaries than accountants. In all of these jurisdictions, pay remains competitive with other professions throughout a teacher’s career. What’s more, teachers in top-performing jurisdictions like Singapore and Shanghai have real career pathways, or ladders, to move up, taking on more responsibility over the course of their careers. Master teachers are paid as much as principals and the best are celebrated by their peers, state and nation.
What this amounts to is treating teachers like high status professionals, the way we treat doctors, architects, engineers, attorneys and accountants.
“But the U.S. cannot possibly afford that,” critics will say. “It is an impossible dream.” No, it is not. The top-performing countries spend less per student, but more per teacher, than the United States does. If they can do it, so can we.
But time is running out. The opportunity to make a new beginning will soon have passed. Because of our prior failure to act, the United States now has one of the least well-educated work forces in the industrialized world, according to the OECD. Forty years ago, we had the best-educated work force in the world.
We are setting up to cripple our teacher work force. And that will be catastrophic for student achievement, for the American economy and for our ability to sustain our democracy. Teacher policy should be a major topic in the coming presidential campaign. But I am not holding my breath.
The opinions expressed in Top Performers 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.