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There’s a Reason There Aren’t Enough Teachers in America. Many Reasons, Actually.

Teachers are not only burnt out and undercompensated, they are also demoralized. They are being asked to do things in the name of teaching that they believe are mis-educational and harmful to students and the profession.

Calla Kessler/The New York Times

Here are just a few of the longstanding problems plaguing American education: a generalized decline in literacy; the faltering international performance of American students; an inability to recruit enough qualified college graduates into the teaching profession; a lack of trained and able substitutes to fill teacher shortages; unequal access to educational resources; inadequate funding for schools; stagnant compensation for teachers; heavier workloads; declining prestige; and deteriorating faculty morale.

Nine-year-old students earlier this year revealed “the largest average score decline in reading since 1990, and the first ever score decline in mathematics,” according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In the latest comparison of fourth grade reading ability, the United States ranked below 15 countries, including Russia, Ireland, Poland and Bulgaria.

Doris Santoro, a professor of education at Bowdoin, wrote by email in response to my query regarding the morale of public school teachers:

Teachers are not only burnt out and undercompensated, they are also demoralized. They are being asked to do things in the name of teaching that they believe are mis-educational and harmful to students and the profession. What made this work good for them is no longer accessible. That is why we are hearing so many refrains of “I’m not leaving the profession, my profession left me.”

In an August 2022 paper, “Is There a National Teacher Shortage?,” Tuan D. Nguyen and Chanh B. Lam, both of Kansas State University, and Paul Bruno of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign wrote that they

systematically examined news reports, department of education data, and publicly available information on teacher shortages for every state in the U.S. We find there are at least 36,000 vacant positions along with at least 163,000 positions being held by underqualified teachers, both of which are conservative estimates of the extent of teacher shortages nationally.

In an email, Nguyen argued, “The current problem of teacher shortages (I would further break this down into vacancy and under-qualification) is higher than normal.” The data, Nguyen continued, “indicate that shortages are worsening over time, particularly over the last few years. We do see that southern states (e.g., Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Florida) have very high vacancies and high vacancy rates.”

He pointed out that “the cultural war issues have been prominent in some of these states (e.g., Florida).”

I asked Josh Bleiberg, a professor of education at the University of Pittsburgh, about trends in teacher certification. He emailed back:

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The number of qualified teachers is declining for the whole country and the vast majority of states. The number of certified teachers only increased in the District of Columbia, Massachusetts, North Dakota, and Washington. Those increases were relatively small and likely didn’t keep up with enrollment increases.

These declines in the numbers of qualified teachers take place in an environment of stagnant or declining economic incentives, he wrote:

Wages are essentially unchanged from 2000 to 2020 after adjusting for inflation. Teachers have about the same number of students. But, teacher accountability reforms have increased the demands on their positions. The pandemic was very difficult for teachers. Their self-reported level of stress was about as twice as high during the pandemic compared to other working adults. Teachers had to worry both about their personal safety and deal with teaching/caring for students who are grieving lost family members.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of students graduating from college with bachelor’s degrees in education fell from 176,307 in 1970-71 to 104,008 in 2010-11 to 85,058 in 2019-20.

In a study of teachers’ salaries, Sylvia Allegretto, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institutefound a growing gap between the pay of all college graduates and teacher salaries from 1979 to 2021, with a sharp increase in the differential since 2010. In 1979, the average teacher weekly salary (in 2021 dollars) was $1,052, 22.9 percent less than other college graduates’, at $1,364. By 2010, teachers made $1,352 and other graduates made $1,811. By 2021, teachers made $1,348, 32.9 percent less than what other graduates made, at $2,009.

These gaps play a significant role in determining the quality of teachers, according to a study by Eric A. Hanushek of Stanford; Marc Piopiunik, a senior researcher at the CESifo Network; and Simon Wiederhold, a professor at the Catholic University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt, “The Value of Smarter Teachers: International Evidence on Teacher Cognitive Skills and Student Performance.”

“We find,” they write, “that teachers’ cognitive skills differ widely among nations — and that these differences matter greatly for students’ success in school. An increase of one standard deviation in teacher cognitive skills is associated with an increase of 10 to 15 percent of a standard deviation in student performance.” In addition, they find “that teachers have lower cognitive skills, on average, in countries with greater nonteaching job opportunities for women in high-skill occupations and where teaching pays relatively less than other professions. These findings have clear implications for policy debates here in the U.S., where teachers earn some 20 percent less than comparable college graduates.”

Using data for 33 countries collected by the O.E.C.D.’s Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, the scholars found that the cognitive skills of teachers in the United States fell in the middle ranks:

Teachers in the United States perform worse than the average teacher sample-wide in numeracy, with a median score of 284 points out of a possible 500, compared to the sample-wide average of 292 points. In literacy, they perform slightly better than average, with a median score of 301 points compared to the sample-wide average of 295 points.

Raising teacher skill levels can significantly improve student performance, they argue:

Increasing teacher numeracy skills by one standard deviation increases student performance by nearly 15 percent of a standard deviation on the PISA math test. Our estimate of the effect of increasing teacher literacy skills on students’ reading performance is slightly smaller, at 10 percent of a standard deviation.

In addition, “the impact of teacher skills is somewhat larger for girls than for boys and for low-income students compared to wealthier students, particularly in reading.”

How, then, to raise teacher skill level in the United States? Hanushek and his two colleagues have a simple answer: raise teacher pay to make it as attractive to college graduates as high-skill jobs in other fields.

They have one caveat:

While making it clear that a more skilled teaching force is generally found in countries with higher relative salaries, policymakers will need to do more than raise teacher pay across the board to ensure positive results. They must ensure that higher salaries go to more effective teachers.

The teaching of disputed subjects in schools has compounded many of the difficulties in American education. “Walking a Fine Line — Educators’ Views on Politicized Topics in Schooling,” a RAND report by Ashley Woo and eight fellow researchers, published earlier this year, was based on surveys conducted in January and February 2022 of 2,360 K-12 teachers and 1,540 principals. The researchers found that controversies over critical race theory, sex education and transgender issues — aggravated by divisive debates over responses to Covid and its aftermath — are inflicting a heavy toll on teachers and principals.

“On top of the herculean task of carrying out the essential functions of their jobs,” they write, “educators increasingly find themselves in the position of addressing contentious, politicized issues in their schools as the United States has experienced increasing political polarization.”

Teachers and principals, they add, “have been pulled in multiple directions as they try to balance and reconcile not only their own beliefs on such matters but also the beliefs of others around them, including their leaders, fellow staff, students, and students’ family members.”

These conflicting pressures take place in a climate where “emotions in response to these issues have run high within communities, resulting in the harassment of educators, bans against literature depicting diverse characters, and calls for increased parental involvement in deciding academic content.”

The stress of dealing with all this is much more prevalent among educators than it is among workers in other fields, according to the study:

Forty-eight percent of principals and 40 percent of teachers reported that the intrusion of political issues and opinions in school leadership or teaching, respectively, was a job-related stressor. By comparison, only 16 percent of working adults indicated that the intrusion of political issues and opinions in their jobs was a source of job-related stress. This difference demonstrates the especially salient impact that politicized issues have had in schools compared with other workplaces.

The issue of systemic racism provides an example of the intellectual and moral cross-pressures on educators as teaching becomes increasingly politicized. Many conservative legislatures have restricted or prohibited teaching students that there is such a thing as systemic racism in the United States.

The RAND survey asked educators whether “they believed in the existence of systemic racism, which we defined as the notion that racism is embedded in systems and structures throughout society rather than present only in interpersonal interactions.”The result?

Sixty percent of teachers and 65 percent of principals reported believing that systemic racism exists. Only about 20 percent of teachers and principals reported that they believe systemic racism does not exist, and the remainder were not sure. More teachers of color (69 percent) reported believing in the existence of systemic racism than White teachers (57 percent). We saw a similar trend among principals: 79 percent of principals of color reported their belief in the existence of systemic racism compared with 61 percent of White principals. Nearly all Black or African American principals (92 percent) and teachers (87 percent) reported believing that systemic racism exists.

White educators working in predominantly white school systems reported substantially more pressure to deal with politically divisive issues than educators of color and those working in mostly minority schools: “Forty-one percent of white teachers and 52 percent of white teachers and principals selected the intrusion of political issues and opinions into their professions as a job-related stressor, compared with 36 percent of teachers of color and principals of color.” In addition, they write, “Teachers (46 percent) and principals (58 percent) in schools with predominantly white students were significantly more likely than teachers (34 percent) and principals (36 percent) in schools with predominantly students of color to consider the intrusion of political issues and opinions as a job-related stressor.”

A 54 percent majority of teachers and principals said there “should not be legal limits on classroom conversations about racism, sexism, and other topics,” while 20 percent said there should be legislated constraint. There were significant racial differences on this issue: “62 percent of principals of color and 59 percent of teachers of color opposed such legal limits, compared with 51 percent of white principals and 52 percent of white teachers.”

Voters, in turn, are highly polarized on the teaching of issues impinging on race or ethnicity in public schools. The Education Next 2022 Survey asked, for example:

Some people think their local public schools place too little emphasis on slavery, racism and other challenges faced by Black people in the United States. Other people think their local public schools place too much emphasis on these topics. What is your view about your local public schools?

The responses of Democrats and Republicans were mirror opposites of each other. Among Democrats, 55 percent said too little emphasis was placed on slavery, racism and other challenges faced by Black people, and 8 percent said too much. Among Republicans, 51 said too much and 10 percent said too little.

Because of the lack of reliable national data, there is widespread disagreement among scholars of education over the scope and severity of the shortage of credentialed teachers, although there is more agreement that these problems are worse in low-income, high majority-minority school systems and in STEM and special education faculties.

A study based on a survey last summer of 682 public high school principals and on 32 follow-up interviews, conducted by the Institute for Democracy, Education and Access at U.C.L.A. and the Civic Engagement Research Group at the University of California-Riverside, “Educating for a Diverse Democracy: The Chilling Role of Political Conflict in Blue, Purple, and Red Communities,” found:

Public schools increasingly are targets of conservative political groups focusing on what they term “Critical Race Theory,” as well as issues of sexuality and gender identity. These political conflicts have created a broad chilling effect that has limited opportunities for students to practice respectful dialogue on controversial topics and made it harder to address rampant misinformation. The chilling effect also has led to marked declines in general support for teaching about race, racism, and racial and ethnic diversity.

These political conflicts, the authors wrote,

have made the already hard work of public education more difficult, undermining school management, negatively impacting staff, and heightening student stress and anxiety. Several principals shared that they were reconsidering their own roles in public education in light of the rage at teachers and rage at administrators’ playing out in their communities.

Since 2010 there has been a cumulative decline in four key measures shaping the attractiveness of the teaching profession.

In a November 2022 paper, “The Rise and Fall of the Teaching Profession: Prestige, Interest, Preparation, and Satisfaction Over the Last Half Century,” Matthew Kraft of Brown University and Melissa Arnold Lyon of the University at Albany, State University of New York tracked trends on “four interrelated constructs: professional prestige, interest among students, preparation for entry, and job satisfaction” for 50 years, from the 1970s to the present and found

a consistent and dynamic pattern across every measure: a rapid decline in the 1970s, a swift rise in the 1980s, relative stability for two decades, and a sustained drop beginning around 2010. The current state of the teaching profession is at or near its lowest levels in 50 years.

The analysis by Kraft and Lyon poses a crucial issue for those concerned about the quality of teaching in public schools:

Growing dissatisfaction and burnout among teachers in the wake of the pandemic and new state laws restricting discourse on racism and sexuality in schools have set ablaze a long smoldering question: Who among the next generation of college graduates will choose to teach?

Some of the specifics in the Kraft-Lyon study:

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 freshmen 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.

The combination of these factors — declining prestige, lower pay than other professions that require a college education, increased workloads, and political and ideological pressures — is creating both intended and unintended consequences for teacher accountability reforms mandating tougher licensing rules, evaluations and skill testing.

In their July 2020 paper, “Teacher Accountability Reforms and the Supply and Quality of New Teachers,” Kraft, Eric Brunner of the University of Connecticut, Shaun M. Dougherty of Boston College and David Schwegman of American University describe the mixed results of the wave of state-level adoption of “a package of reforms centered on high-stakes evaluation systems”:

We find that accountability reforms reduced the number of newly licensed teacher candidates and increased the likelihood of unfilled teaching positions, particularly in hard-to-staff schools. Evidence also suggests that reforms increased the quality of newly hired teachers by reducing the likelihood that new teachers attended unselective undergraduate institutions.

In addition, Kraft, Brunner, Dougherty and Schwegman write:

Evaluation reforms also appear to have reduced teacher satisfaction and autonomy. We find that evaluation reforms resulted in a 14.6 percentage point drop in the likelihood that teachers Strongly Agree that they are satisfied with being a teacher. We find a 5.7 percentage point decrease in the probability that new teachers Strongly Agree that they have control over the content and skills they teach and an 8.9 percentage point drop in the probability that new teachers Strongly Agree that they have control over their teaching techniques.

The authors’ conclusion provides little comfort:

Education policy over the past decade has focused considerable effort on improving human capital in schools through teacher accountability. These reforms, and the research upon which they drew, were based on strong assumptions about how accountability would affect who decided to become a teacher. Counter to most assumptions, our findings document how teacher accountability reduced the supply of new teacher candidates by, in part, decreasing perceived job security, satisfaction and autonomy.

The reforms, Kraft and colleagues continued, increased

the likelihood that schools could not fill vacant teaching positions. Even more concerning, effects on unfilled vacancies were concentrated in hard-to-staff schools that often serve larger populations of low-income students and students of color. We find that evaluation reforms increased the quality of newly hired novice teachers by reducing the number of teachers that graduated from the least selective institutions. We find no evidence that evaluation reforms served to attract teachers who attended the most selective undergraduate institutions.

In other words, the economic incentives, salary structure and work-life pressures characteristic of public education employment have created a climate in which contemporary education reforms have perverse and unintended consequences that can worsen rather than alleviate the problems facing school systems.

If so, to improve the overall quality of the nation’s more than three million public schoolteachers, reformers may want to give priority to paychecks, working conditions, teacher autonomy and punishing workloads before attempting to impose higher standards, tougher evaluations and less job security.

Thomas B. Edsall contributes a weekly column from Washington, D.C., on politics, demographics and inequality.