By Henry Tran, Associate Professor of Education Leadership, University of South Carolina; Douglas A. Smith, Associate Professor of Education, Iowa State University
States have recently focused their efforts to reduce the nation’s teacher shortage by promoting strategies that “remove or relax barriers to entry” to quickly bring new people into the teaching profession.
California, for example, allows teacher candidates to skip basic skills and subject matter tests if they have taken approved college courses. New Mexico is replacing subject skills tests with a portfolio to demonstrate teaching competency.
Similarly, Oklahoma eliminated the Oklahoma General Education Test as a certification requirement. Missouri no longer looks at a prospective teacher’s overall grades – just the ones earned in select courses required to become a teacher. Alabama has moved to allow some who score below the cutoff scores on teacher certification exams to still get a teacher’s license, and Arizona’s education requirements for teachers now allow people without a college degree to begin teaching – so long as they are currently enrolled in college.
All of these efforts focus on recruiting new teachers, mostly by lowering requirements to make it easier for people to become certified to teach in public schools.
But these approaches do not address the actual causes of the nationwide teacher shortage. As we found doing research for our book How Did We Get Here?: The Decay of the Teaching Profession, college students who are interested in becoming teachers and current teachers agree: The root cause of the problem is a longstanding overall lack of respect for teachers and their craft, which is reflected by decades of low pay, hyperscrutiny and poor working conditions.
Disrespect to the profession is driving teachers away
Even before COVID-19 hit, teachers were leaving the profession at an increasing rate. In the late 1980s, annual teacher turnover was 5.6%, but it has grown to around 8% over the past decade.
The stress of teaching through a pandemic has been speculated to drive away even more teachers. About 1 in 6 teachers expressed that they would likely leave their job pre-pandemic, but this increased to 1 in 4 by the 2020-21 school year. While teachers continue to leave classrooms, fewer people are signing up to replace them.
In fact, the number of incoming teachers declined from 275,000 in 2010 to under 200,000 in 2020 and is projected to be under 120,000 by 2025. And even those staying on the job are so unhappy, many have been striking.
We found that the reasons teachers are leaving primarily revolve around the disrespect they and the profession consistently face. For example, teachers earn about 20% less than similarly educated professionals.
They also faced an escalating workload, even before the pandemic placed additional demands on their time, energy and mental health.
In addition, teachers have been experiencing diminishing control over what and how they teach. They are also regularly exposed to a continued tide of disrespectful student behavior and parental hostility, as highlighted by a survey of 15,000 educators that revealed a growing trend of students verbally and physically harassing teachers, as well as parents engaging in online harassment and retaliatory behaviors for teachers simply doing their jobs.
This overall lack of respect drives turnover from existing teachers and discourages potential teachers from considering the profession.
One college student told us, “I looked into teaching as a career pretty strongly … and every person I talked to, be it a grade school teacher or college professor, told me the same thing – that it was a lot of work, it was an unstable work environment, and the pay was very poor for the amount of work that you put in.” Unsurprisingly, she chose another career path.
The wrong solutions for the problem
A growing number of states have eliminated or have proposed to remove basic skills and subject matter exam requirements for teacher certification. Those prerequisites have long served as quality control checks for prospective teachers. While they do not guarantee effective teaching, they do serve as a minimum qualification threshold.
We believe efforts to loosen requirements for new teachers will bring more disrespect to the profession. History also suggests that they will make it so that schools that serve mostly students of color will have even fewer certified and experienced teachers than they already do.
But more directly, these efforts to boost teacher recruitment do not address the reasons teachers are leaving the profession in the first place, which drive 90% of the demand for new teachers.
Lowering the standards to allow more people to enter the teaching profession may, for a short period, boost the number of people available to stand in front of classrooms. But that approach does not make teaching an attractive profession to consider, nor worthwhile for someone to stay and thrive in.
Solving the teacher shortage problem requires solutions that reduce the numbers of teachers leaving the field and specifically address the lack of respect, low pay, hyperscrutiny and poor working conditions that they regularly endure.