What's Behind the Teacher Shortage?

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“Teacher Shortages Spur a Nationwide Hiring Scramble (Credentials Optional),” screams the New York Times headline. “Where have all the teachers gone?” asks NPR. Rhode Island is one of dozens of states across the country facing a teacher shortage. Providence is one of several large urban districts having difficulty finding teachers.

Frankly, it doesn’t seem like much of a mystery to me. Think about people you know who love their jobs; what features attracted them to their professions and give them job satisfaction? The answers usually include good pay, respect, a sense of accomplishment, and an opportunity for growth. Even a difficult position is rewarding if it has some of these benefits. Does teaching offer these advantages?


Teachers are hardly well paid when compared with other professionals. The average teacher salary in the U.S. ranges from $42,578 for an elementary school teacher to $48,235 for a high school special education teacher. In all states, K – 12 teachers are required to have at least a bachelor’s degree. How does this compare to other fields?

Plumbers earn an average salary of $53,820; entry-level marketing managers make an average of $51,555. The median annual wage for respiratory therapy, a field one can enter with an associate’s degree, is $55,870. In fact, the average salary for a garbage collector, a position that has no educational requirements, is $43,000 per year.

Some argue that teachers only work ten months per year. It’s easy enough to do the math and see that, if you scale the earnings above to a 10-month pay scale, most of them are comparable to a teacher salary. However, there are few plumbers, respiratory therapists, and garbage collectors who take their work home with them; most teachers spend their evenings grading papers and preparing for classes. Many teachers spend their own money purchasing materials for their classrooms, as well.

In 2013-2014, Rhode Island starting teacher salaries ranged from a low of $35,179 in Foster/Glocester to a high of $47,087 in Westerly. A beginning teacher in Providence earned $38,872. The teacher salaries are significantly higher in all of the Connecticut and Massachusetts districts that abut Rhode Island, and our small size enables teachers to commute easily depending on where they live.


So we don’t pay our educators well; do we treat them with respect? You’ve probably heard the old adage, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” Politicians and parents, businessmen and busboys – everyone seems to have an opinion on how to fix our schools. Most people would never think of telling their doctor that he ran the wrong test or of telling their mechanic how to fix the brakes when they drop off their car. But we do this to teachers all the time.

We give our professional athletes far more respect and accolades than we do our teachers, pointed out most comically in this skit from Key & Peele. It’s a funny video, but as one viewer commented, “It's disappointing that a world that values education over sports is considered comedy.”

According to the Global Teacher Status Index compiled in 2013, teachers in China, South Korea, Egypt, Turkey, and Singapore enjoy significantly higher status than their counterparts in Europe and the United States. The report goes on to say that, “Research shows that the better teachers are paid, the greater the student outcomes…. But improving pay and conditions alone won’t solve the problem of teacher status. Unless teaching is valued culturally, then the incentive of better pay will not be enough.”


Many people who report high job satisfaction cite feelings of accomplishment. And surely there are teachers who know that they are making a difference in children’s lives each day. But increasingly, we measure teacher performance using metrics that are partially beyond their control. We look at test scores and student performance to determine if our teachers are doing their jobs, without taking into account attendance rates, environmental factors, and other skills that are difficult to measure – such as creativity, problem-solving, and collaboration.

Traditionally, teachers had high degrees of autonomy; they had the freedom to figure out what would inspire their students, and they had the ability to determine the best way to teach concepts and skills on any given day. Nowadays, with the advent of Common Core and high-stake testing, many schools have a more prescribed curriculum that leaves teachers feeling powerless.

Nancie Atwell, longtime Maine educator, won the first $1 million Global Teacher Prize this year from the Varkey Foundation. She told CNN in March that she would not recommend teaching as a profession, especially in the public schools, where teachers are constrained by the Common Core standards and tests. “It’s a movement that has turned teachers into technicians, not reflective practitioners. If you’re a creative, smart young person, I don’t think this is the time to go into teaching, unless an independent school would suit you.”

These are the reasons behind the national and local teacher shortage. Until we change some of these factors, the best and brightest are not going to become – and remain – teachers. And since teachers shape our future leaders, we’re all going to lose out.

This post was also published at GoLocalProv.

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