The demoralization of today’s teachers is a problem that may be followed by an even more damaging systemic issue: Fewer college and university students want to become teachers, and the new teacher pipeline is drying up.
“The current state of the teaching profession is at or near its lowest levels in 50 years,” according to a working paper published in November by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University. In it, Matthew Kraft of Brown and Melissa Arnold Lyon of the University at Albany painted a dire picture of the profession:
Perceptions of teacher prestige have fallen between 20 percent and 47 percent in the last decade to be at or near the lowest levels recorded over the last half century. Interest in the teaching profession among high school seniors and college freshman has fallen 50 percent since the 1990s and 38 percent since 2010, reaching the lowest level in the last 50 years. The number of new entrants into the profession has fallen by roughly one third over the last decade, and the proportion of college graduates that go into teaching is at a 50-year low. Teachers’ job satisfaction is also at the lowest level in five decades, with the percent of teachers who feel the stress of their job is worth it dropping from 81 percent to 42 percent in the last 15 years.
When I spoke to Kraft, he said that while we’re in a “moment of really acute crisis” right now, the “trend of declining respect and interest and entry and satisfaction in the profession” isn’t new — it started more than a decade ago. He said that while it’s tough to pinpoint, the cause is partly a combination of stagnant real wages for teachers while wages were rising in other sectors for college-educated workers, the increasing cost of higher education in general, and declining respect for the profession overall.
It’s important to note that teacher shortages are not uniformly spread across schools, districts or states. Kraft told me that where there are shortages “typically cuts along racial and socioeconomic lines.” There are particular shortages in rural schools and for STEM and special education teachers, for example. The shortages may be hitting public schools the hardest, because charter and private schools can be a bit more nimble about payment and staff allocation, but most kids go to traditional public schools, and when the issue is playing out at such a macro level, there may be spillover, Kraft said.
So what can be done to help get more teachers into the profession and keep them there? Cutting the costs of a teaching degree is one lever to pull, whether that’s through student loan forgiveness or college scholarships. Dorinda Carter Andrews, the chair for the department of teacher education at Michigan State University, told me that her school’s teacher preparation program is moving from a five-year model to a four-year model because the fifth year, which was traditionally an internship year, became a financial hardship for many students; they were interning in schools full-time without pay, and so could not take on additional work. “We have curated the yearlong internship into the senior year,” Carter Andrews said. M.S.U. wants to be responsive to students, and make sure they aren’t “going into debt for a profession that still underpays its employees.”
Teacher pay is an obvious concern, but it is really state dependent. According to the National Education Association, as of last year, the average starting salary for a teacher with a master’s degree is around $39,000 a year in Colorado, versus about $60,000 in Washington State. Earlier this year the N.E.A. reported that when adjusted for inflation, “the average salary of teachers has actually declined by an estimated 6.4 percent, or $3,644, over the past decade.”