In just a couple of weeks, students across the country will begin heading back to school, and principals are busy hiring teachers to fill vacant positions. On a recent flight, I sat next to a proud father who told me that his daughter, who graduated from college in May, had just been hired as a teacher at the school where she completed her student teaching this year. It's a success for her and her new school, but the next month will likely bring a familiar cycle of headlines about districts scrambling to staff their schools. This year, however, those headlines may be more justified than usual.
While teacher turnover held steady for the first few years of the pandemic, recent data shows an uptick in teacher attrition. Districts are worried. How will they attract teachers to the classroom and fill those vacancies?
The answer to this question may also be familiar. While many workplaces have adapted to changing needs around working conditions, salaries, and benefits, school systems have largely resisted changes that would make careers in the classroom more attractive.
Let's start with teacher pay and housing affordability. In many large districts, teacher salaries are not high enough for teachers to buy houses. In 15 out of 69 large metro areas, new teachers can't even afford rent on a 1-bedroom apartment; and in some districts, it would take a teacher two decades or more to save up enough to buy a home. This means teachers have to commute long hours and live outside of the community in which they teach—a stark contrast to their peers in other jobs who enjoy the flexibility of remote work. Often, these cities with exorbitant housing prices are the very same ones serving high proportions of students living in poverty, where we most need effective teachers. In a recent national survey by Educators for Excellence, 73 percent of teachers of color said that housing support would be an effective strategy to attract and retain teachers.
Compounding the problem of relatively low salaries is the heavy student loan debt burdening many teachers–especially teachers of color. The U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision struck down President Biden's comprehensive plan to eliminate some or all federal student loan debt. About a quarter of all educators have unpaid student loan debt, and this burden disproportionately affects Black educators (roughly 40% of whom have unpaid debt and carry higher amounts of debt than their counterparts), and younger educators, according to a fall 2022 survey from the NEA. This high debt burden may push aspiring teachers of color to take another job with higher pay. Black undergraduate students in particular are more likely to report changing their career plans because of student loan debt. A 2022 RAND corporation survey of teachers of color found that loan forgiveness was one of the most popular strategies, eclipsed only by raising teacher pay, as a way to recruit teachers of color into the classroom. Of course, to be effective, a loan forgiveness program needs to be far less complex than many currently in place.
The teaching workforce is predominantly female, and unfortunately the pandemic has underscored that women are the default caregivers for their children (see here and here for a few of many examples). Yet few districts acknowledge this reality by offering paid parental leave, which risks forcing teachers (and especially women) to choose between staying in their chosen career, or taking the needed time to care for their newborns.
Furthermore, teachers are still largely paid the same, regardless of which school or which subject they teach—ignoring the reality that someone with a science degree (required for many high school science teachers) can make far more money out of the classroom than in it.
Upending this status quo can solve staffing challenges while righting inequities.
Districts can incentivize effective teachers to fill their hard-to-staff roles by paying them more to work where they're needed most. This basic economic law of supply and demand seems to be forgotten when it comes to recruiting teachers. Numerous studies find that students living in poverty and students of color tend to get the least effective and least experienced teachers despite having the greatest instructional needs. Hiring experienced and effective teachers at schools serving these students could dramatically improve their academic outcomes, while novice teachers could start their careers in better-resourced schools.
At first glance, what I am proposing may seem to conflict with the current reality. After all, the looming fiscal cliff when the ESSER funds run out in 2024 is estimated to equate to 250,000 education jobs and student enrollment in public schools continues to decline, foreshadowing even more budget cuts. Yet those realities are why we have to be even more strategic in using our existing resources. Missteps in hiring are costly. Experts calculate that staff salaries and benefits make up 80 percent of school district budgets. And when we lose teachers, it's estimated that it costs between $9,000 and $20,000 to replace them—in addition to the costs on students, families, and other teachers and administrators in a school with high teacher turnover.
Where will the funds come from? We have to make some hard choices that may upend equal pay among teachers, but it's worth doing in service of greater equity and opportunity for students.
It will be more politically feasible if we keep current teacher salaries stable, yet district leaders can make changes to future cohorts of teachers, such as prioritizing higher starting salaries while slightly reducing the often steep climb in later-career salaries, or eliminating the master's degree subsidy where research shows again and again that teachers with master's degrees are rarely more effective than teachers without them. Let's effectively use this lion's share of the school budget to attract and retain high quality teachers–especially in the schools and districts that need them the most. Here are a few ideas.
1. Offer ample loan forgiveness.
Make it easy to access and easy to understand. Then prioritize teachers who teach where we need them the most (schools, subjects, geographic regions). This can increase the teacher pipeline and support more teachers of color to enter the teaching workforce.
Already, 28 states use loan forgiveness as a recruitment and retention strategy for educators in general, and ten of these use loan forgiveness programs with the explicit goal of increasing teacher diversity. Wisconsin, for example, has established a statewide Minority Teacher Loan program, which funds student loans for teacher candidates enrolled in a Wisconsin college or university preparation program and preparing to become certified in a teacher shortage area. Recipients agree to teach in a Wisconsin school district serving 40% or more low-income students and, in turn, have their loans forgiven at a rate of 25% per year. We offer loan forgiveness to banks and corporations in the billions of dollars, why not our most impactful public servants?
2. Pay effective teachers more to work in our highest-need subjects and schools.
Teaching is hard work everywhere, but we have to acknowledge that our shortages are not universal, and that attracting teachers into the workforce will take more money in some subjects and in some under-resourced schools. We must align our incentives to make a difference where it matters.
Policymakers in the state of Hawaii offered $10,000 pay raises for special education teachers. One year after they instituted this incentive, the single-district state hired nearly 300 new licensed special education teachers and cut the number of vacant positions (or those filled by unlicensed teachers) in half. Houston Independent School District, led by new superintendent Mike Miles (a former NCTQ Board member) is implementing a new salary system for this upcoming school year focused on 29 of HISD's highest need schools. The plan, dubbed "The New Education System" will increase and differentiate teacher pay by grade level and subject in these highest-need schools in the district. Miles previously pioneered a differentiated pay program in Dallas aimed to attract more effective and experienced teachers to the schools that most needed them; the results were dramatic gains in student achievement when the program was in place.
3. Build the bench with deliberate student teaching placements and partnerships with local teacher prep programs.
If you're a sports fan, you know that teams spend just as much time cultivating talent as they do managing their major league players. Thoughtful principals do, too. The recent college graduate whose father was on my flight committed early to the high-poverty school where she had done her student teaching, explaining to her dad (who wanted her to wait for more offers to come in, especially from schools that were more affluent) that she knew the students and their families, the other teachers in the building were already colleagues, and she respected the principal. It's quite the attractive (and inexpensive) incentive: These student teachers will have a far easier first year when they already know the school, the students, their families, the curriculum in use, and where to go for support. Chicago Public Schools recently took a more centralized approach to structuring student teaching placements to ensure that student teachers are assigned to the schools that need them the most and are placed under the mentorship of the most effective teachers.
4. Reimagine teachers' roles: Most teachers' jobs are structured the same way on Day 1 and Day 1,000. Although the students present different and specific needs, teachers seek opportunity to grow and lead, without having to become a principal to do so–and teaching is a lonely enterprise in the persistent "egg crate" structure of schools, a term sociologist Dan Lortie coined in 1975. What's more, dynamic jobs can attract talented high-performers. There are efforts underway through the Coalition to Reimagine Teaching to redesign teachers' roles to promote collaboration, varied and dynamic roles in service of better meeting student needs, and better attracting and retaining talented teachers.
Teaching is never going to be an easy job, but it is a deeply rewarding one. Districts and state policymakers can make it financially rewarding too. Teachers deserve a professional career that provides enough money to afford a home, paid leave when they need to take care of their own children, and an opportunity for career advancement.
The more education leaders can make these changes, the fewer headlines we'll see in the future about a lack of teachers as the school year begins, and school leaders, teachers, and students will all be better for it.