Special Report
Teaching Profession Reported Essay

Public Schools Rely on Underpaid Female Labor. It’s Not Sustainable

The labor market for women has changed in the last half century. Have schools?
By Alyson Klein — August 31, 2023 9 min read
Illustration of contemporary teacher looking at a line-up of mostly female teachers through the history of public education in the United States.
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Five years into teaching high school math, Tonya Clarke glimpsed the career path she would have taken if she had only known it existed: actuarial scientist, a profession that relies on a deep understanding of statistics to assess risk and figure out how to minimize it.

Median pay is upward of $106,000, and you don’t have to help run active-shooter drills.

As a college student in the 1990s, Clarke, now the coordinator of K-12 mathematics for the Clayton County school district in suburban Atlanta, wasn’t sure what to do with her bachelor’s in mathematics. She didn’t get much direction from advisers, even though her transcript full of coding classes could have pointed to computer programming or engineering.

At the time, those fields were even whiter and more male-dominated than they are today. “I don’t think anyone that I was seeking guidance from saw that for me,” said Clarke, a Black woman.

Instead, when her mother reminded her how much she had loved tutoring in an after-school program and asked why she didn’t become a teacher, Clarke took her advice. By the time she stumbled on actuarial science—ironically, while researching careers that relied on math to engage her students—Clarke had two children and a mortgage on a brand-new house. She wasn’t about to stop working and go back to school, even for a profession that could lead to greater fulfillment and higher pay.

For nearly a century, public schools have operated on the backs of the Tonya Clarkes of the world. Intelligent, hardworking, creative women who take on a demanding job known for its low pay, narrow advancement opportunities, and bureaucratic headaches, in part because their options were limited.

To be sure, many women love working with children, have a genuine passion for the subject they’re teaching, or both, like Clarke. But if someone had pointed the way to another path for their talents and passions, they may have made a different choice.

About This Project

This story is part of a special project called Big Ideas in which EdWeek reporters ask hard questions about K-12 education’s biggest challenges and offer insights based on their extensive coverage and expertise.

It’s a positive development that these days, a 20-something woman with a facility for math would be far more likely to hear about a career like actuarial science than Clarke was. But how many Tonya Clarkes are entering the classroom now, as doors for all sorts of professions open ever wider for women, just as demands on teachers spiral to a point that feels unsustainable, even for the most dedicated?

It’s hard to imagine a profession with a more vital mission. But when it comes to other important aspects of a job—pay, working conditions, opportunities for advancement—school districts are still operating largely as if the labor market for women hasn’t changed in the last half century.

Becoming a teacher became an option for women around the mid-19th century. But for years afterward, female teachers would often have to resign if they got married or became pregnant.

It wasn’t until the middle of the 20th century, in fact, that those conditions changed. “The career opened up so women could actually make a lifetime commitment to teaching,” said Susan Moore Johnson, a professor of education at Harvard University. “Nursing and teaching, those were the two professions” that a college-educated woman could choose, “and it’s not incidental that they are caring professions.”

Even though women now have access to many other lines of work—law, medicine, the vice presidency—the teaching profession remains roughly three quarters female, while the upper echelons of school districts remain majority male.

It’s worth noting that women have made progress in the principalship—more than half of principals are now women, which is more reflective of the population at large. But fewer than a third of superintendents are female.

In many respects, the profession is still conceived in much the way it was over a century ago, said Julia Rafal-Baer, the founder of Women Leading Ed, a national network of women education leaders, and a former special education teacher and current member of the National Assessment Governing Board. Back then, school districts wanted both “efficiency and oversight over this largely young, single female population” of teachers, she said.

Superintendents were envisioned as “fatherlike figures” to keep them in line, Rafal-Baer said. “It’s more than 150 years later, and what I have come to believe is the system is just doing exactly what it was designed to do,” she said, primarily allowing male superintendents to manage a chiefly female teaching force.

For more than two decades, experts and educators have warned of a coming crisis in K-12 education, when schools can no longer count a steady stream of smart, caring women to do a job with an ever-increasing to-do list.

Ninety percent of teachers and administrators believe that the demands placed on teachers are too high and that is why it has been hard to attract and retain people in the profession, according to a nationally representative EdWeek Research Center survey of 1,301 educators conducted this summer.

What’s more, educators believe the profession’s heavily female tilt is a big part of the reason for teachers’ low salaries and little public regard. Seventy percent of educators surveyed by the EdWeek Research Center say teachers get paid poorly in part because they are in a female-dominated profession, while 58 percent say that the perception of teaching as women’s work translates to a lack of public respect.

Forty-two percent say that the female dominance in the profession discourages young people from going into teaching. And while 51 percent see the impact as neutral, only 7 percent say it has a positive impact on recruitment.

Teachers are essentially CEOs of their own mini-corporations, managing as many as 150 employees, including some fairly disgruntled ones. They spend all day on their feet, and then they plan lessons, do bus duty, make restroom passes and bulletin boards, master new technology, grade papers, create reading programs, hold detention, staff the prom, and yes, help run active-shooter drills.

Does any other sector expect workers to shell $750 out of their own pockets a year to get students $5 Starbucks gift cards as a reward for arriving to class on time?

To paraphrase a teacher I interviewed for a story on the inadequacy of many districts’ self-care initiatives: Would anyone tell a male construction worker—or even a male teacher—who felt depleted after work to take a hot bath and download a mindfulness app?

The implicit message behind it all: If you have a problem with low pay, a dizzying to-do list, and spending your own money to supplement an inadequate budget, then you must not really care about children.

Would anyone tell a male construction worker—or even a male teacher—who felt depleted after work to take a hot bath and download a mindfulness app?

“It’s a little bit of a patriarchal assumption that we hired these people to make the magic happen. And they’re gonna do whatever it takes to make the magic happen, and [the district doesn’t] have to enhance anything,” said Louise Williamson, a roughly 30-year veteran English teacher in Southern California who has served as a fellow with TeachPlus, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the profession.

In some ways, the pile of expectations on educators feels like a natural extension of a working world where mothers are expected to return to the office just weeks after giving birth and cough up nearly $13,000 a year for child care, while earning just 82 percent of what men do for the same work.

To be sure, this crisis has been obvious for some time.

Back in 2000, schools were expected to face a mass retirement of teachers, just as women were being recruited for law school, computer science, engineering and other prestigious professions, according to an Education Week opinion piece Harvard’s Moore Johnson wrote that year.

To attract bright, ambitious people to the profession in this new environment, districts would need to create more career ladders for teachers, as well as bolster mentorship and other support opportunities for novice educators, she recommended—nearly a quarter-century ago. They would also need to boost salaries, offer differentiated pay, and foster a more collaborative working environment.

Most importantly, they would need to give teachers more control over what happens in their schools. “Far too many teachers, both new and experienced, find their best efforts routinely compromised by large classes, fragmented schedules, inadequate supplies, nonteaching duties, decrepit buildings, and irrelevant demands for paperwork,” Moore Johnson wrote at the time.

Fast forward a quarter century, and Moore Johnson’s piece still feels on point. While there have been some improvements in terms of leadership and collaboration in some districts, “I don’t think the job and certainly not the pay have kept pace with the competition for women who want to be professionals,” Moore Johnson said in a recent interview.

Schools don’t have another two decades to figure this out. Between the 2008-09 and the 2018-19 academic years, the number of people completing a teacher education program declined by almost a third, according to a report released last year by the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education. Traditional teacher-preparation programs saw the largest decline—35 percent—but alternative programs experienced drops, too, the report found.

As with so many other things, the pandemic poured accelerant on two realities that will make it even harder for school districts to entice the next generation of Clarkes to become teachers.

First, dealing with COVID-19 and its aftermath has made educators’ already demanding jobs harder, what with plummeting test scores, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and mounting mental health problems, particularly among children, not to mention a difficult political climate.

But it also bolstered another trend: remote work.

Until recently, many women might choose a career in education in part because it would allow them more flexibility to raise a family. But, as more businesses offer flexible work options, education may no longer be as attractive an option to working parents—or anyone who likes the idea of work-life balance.

“Teaching was traditionally a career that women might be drawn to if they really wanted to prioritize family, but it’s no longer the best option,” said Williamson, the Southern California English teacher. “I will tell you every single one of my teaching friends right now is out on LinkedIn, open to offers, trying to figure out the transition out of education.”

Meanwhile, educators like Clarke, a 2023 Education Week Leader To Learn From, are still showing the outsized impact smart women who have spent their careers in education can have on thousands of children. She is heading up a districtwide effort to push students toward deeper numerical thinking. Her work has already helped transform many teachers’ mindsets about the power of math.

Williamson is planning her upcoming retirement party. She’s trying to whittle down the number of former students to include on the guest list because she’s in touch with so many of them.

Williamson sees people she taught “out in the world—actors, professors, artists, city leaders,” she said. “What other career do you get that? You get this sense of ‘this community is what it is partly because of me.’ Teaching offers something unique and special. It’s just some of the baggage that comes with it drives people away, and I think it drives people away who would be great.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 13, 2023 edition of Education Week as Public Schools Rely on Underpaid Female Labor. It’s Not Sustainable

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