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There's An Obvious Solution To The Growing Teacher Shortage

Renée Loth: Teachers have a job with the highest stakes, and the lowest prestige. When they aren’t paid well, our children -- and our nation -- become a little poorer. (Lel4nd/ flickr)
Renée Loth: Teachers have a job with the highest stakes, and the lowest prestige. When they aren’t paid well, our children -- and our nation -- become a little poorer. (Lel4nd/ flickr)
This article is more than 5 years old.

From Oakland, California, to Smithfield, Rhode Island, school districts are scrambling this month to fill teacher vacancies that could have been predicted once the economy started to recover. School officials are calling in substitute teachers, recruiting from overseas, even hiring interns and fresh graduates of teacher colleges who haven’t finished their certifications. The boom-bust cycles that determine local school budgets have taken another dizzying turn: In California, some 82,000 school positions were cut during the recession, from 2008 to 2012. Now the state needs to fill 21,500 teacher vacancies.

The problem isn’t universal: Shortages are mostly in a few specialty areas such as math, special needs education, or English as a second language; geographically, the trouble spots are mostly challenging urban districts or lonely rural communities. Still, it’s worrisome that a glut of openings could be leading to a reduction in standards anywhere; in California, the number of emergency waivers from full certification requirements for new teachers was up 30 percent last year, according to the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing.

The Republicans are forever arguing that government should be run more like a business; any self-respecting business would raise wages to meet a higher demand for workers.

The situation is unlikely to improve anytime soon, as enrollment in teacher training programs is down across the board. Even Teach for America, the mission-driven program that was wildly popular just a few years ago, reports that applications are down about 10 percent this year.

Debate is fierce on how widespread the teacher shortage really is. But one thing seems certain: Recent college graduates and students still choosing their majors are making rational career decisions based on simple economics. With U.S. unemployment down to 5.1 percent -- the lowest rate since 2008 — workers have more choices. Why choose a profession where the average starting salary is $36,000 nationally, and where salaries in real dollars have been declining since 2004?

“Passion for teaching” is the common reply. But the teacher shortage is particularly acute in the so-called STEM subjects — Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. Anthony Carnevale, an economist at Georgetown University and a tireless advocate for more STEM education, noted last month that the difference between the average lifetime earnings of a teacher and an engineer is (gulp) $3.3 million. You’d need an awful lot of passion to overcome that.

Which brings us to the obvious solution to the teacher shortage, one that would be endorsed by Adam Smith himself: Pay teachers more to fix the imbalance of demand and supply. Sure, incentive programs exist to give "signing bonuses" to teachers who agree to work in underserved districts. And special-needs teachers usually get a premium of a few thousand dollars. But these programs are episodic, short-lived and subject to the vagaries of state legislatures or philanthropic trends.

It’s especially striking that so many conservative Republicans — including those running to be the next “education president" — avoid this obvious market solution. The Republicans are forever arguing that government should be run more like a business; any self-respecting business would raise wages to meet a higher demand for workers.

Instead, presidential candidates are offering familiar nostrums about education. Donald Trump would severely reduce the size of the federal Department of Education. Ted Cruz wants more support for home-schooling. Scott Walker has pushed vouchers that allow parents to use public funds for private or religious schools. Chris Christie has called teachers’ unions “the single most destructive force in public education.” Even Hillary Clinton has mostly focused her energies on lowering the student debt of newly minted teachers, with scholarships and limits on college loan interest rates.

Why are teachers treated differently than other professionals — software developers, biotech engineers -- who can command higher wages when their skills are in demand? I count a few reasons. First, residual sexism. Most of today’s leaders remember when teaching was a stop-gap job for young single women waiting to marry. Like many jobs traditionally held by women, teaching has long been undervalued. It’s a man’s world, and women still comprise 74 percent of the teachers in the U.S.

Why are teachers treated differently than other professionals -- software developers, biotech engineers -- who can command higher wages when their skills are in demand?

Second, a slavish devotion to the 19th century idea that education should be handled at the local level. Tying school budgets to local property taxes creates all sorts of imbalance and inequity. Teachers don’t have just one boss, but thousands of individual taxpayers who don’t want to pay more.

Most significant, though, is a generalized disdain for public workers. Too many voters, egged on by ideologues who want to drown public institutions in the bathtub, think public sector workers are lazy, coddled and overpaid. Carly Fiorina, the Republican presidential candidate who is fast becoming a new media darling, has disparaged public-sector jobs, saying famously during the 2012 Republican convention that they are “not the same as private sector jobs.” As if teachers and policemen don’t also contribute to the nation’s economy.

Teachers have a job with the highest stakes, and the lowest prestige. When they aren’t paid well, our children — and our nation -- become a little poorer.

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Renée Loth Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Renée Loth writes about news, politics and architecture for Cognoscenti. Her column appears regularly. She is also the editor of Architecture Boston magazine, and a columnist for The Boston Globe.

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