It is said of teaching that when done well, it gives students the possibility of a better future. There’s more to this notion. As a country let us not forget that teaching, when done well, gives our nation the possibility of a better future.
I’d thought about recusing myself from further comment about the importance of teaching and our country’s public education system because of my biases (I spent many years teaching and as an education administrator). But alas, my biases started to burn a hole in my keyboard.
If teachers are truly a gift to our nation’s future, do we gift cheaply or do we gift handsomely? My point here is that this should not be a binary decision, and most certainly not one by neglect or default.
Highly-qualified teachers are the refined fuel that drives our nation’s entrepreneurial, economic, political and cultural engines. Who else ultimately throttles our engines but our rising students, encouraged, mentored and inspired by their teachers. These “engines” are the muscle that keeps our country strong. Without the fuel our nation’s teachers provide our engines will sputter, and our nation will stall.
But we have a national teacher problem, in more ways than one. A recent report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that more than 282,000 teachers have left the teaching profession this year. Worse still, according to the USBLS, “there were approximately 10.6 million educators working in public education in January 2020; today there are just 10.0 million, a net loss of around 600,000.”
Couple this depletion of the teaching ranks with the post-pandemic learning shortfalls, and as Eric Hanushek wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal, “By far the largest economic costs of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. will come from shortfalls in student learning from school closures, inferior hybrid and remote instruction, and the general disruption of normal schooling.” He went on to say, “The best estimates place learning losses at the equivalent of a year or more of schooling, resulting in 6% to 9% lower lifetime earnings for the average student and much more for disadvantaged students.”
More troubling, related to the post-pandemic education recovery, according to a National Education Association poll, 55% of teachers are looking for jobs outside the teaching profession. Other findings in the same poll revealed that:
1. 90% of its members say that feeling burned out is a serious problem;
2. 86% say they have seen more educators leaving the profession or retiring early since the start of the pandemic.; and
3. 80% report that unfilled job openings have led to more work obligations for those left.
So, can we say that we have a national emergency when it comes to pre-collegiate public education in America? It’s tempting to say yes given some of the numbers and poll results coupled with teacher strikes already in progress in U.S. cities, including Columbus City Schools, the largest district in Ohio (since resolved). In broad-brush terms, a net loss of 600,000 teachers in two years means that on average each state has lost about 12,000 teachers, and that’s stunning.
According to Education Week, the average teachers’ salary in the United States is $63,645. But this number can be misleading. While New York and California’s average is slightly over $86,000, Mississippi’s is $47,655 and Arizona’s is $52,157. True there are cost of living differences but nothing close to half. And starting salaries are oftentimes non-starters, e.g., Missouri’s starting teachers’ salaries are just slightly more than $25,000.
So, you’re a young woman or man in college and you have an ambition to succeed and live a middle class or upper middle class lifestyle, get a degree and hopefully over time a master’s degree and you’re thinking, should I go into the teaching profession, or should I become a nurse practitioner? Both are service oriented careers. Well, a starting salary of $30,000 over here or a starting salary of about $100,000 over there, and that’s a big reason why we are seeing so many leave the teaching profession.
With districts competing with other districts to hold on to teachers, we are seeing offers of four-day work weeks and bonuses emerging as a result of the competition. That may help to keep teachers, but my experience tells me that four-day work weeks are not what’s best for students in a highly competitive world. Teachers need to feel valued. Pay matters. Workload matters. Class size matters. What about school districts building daycare facilities into their budgets for teachers with preschool aged children?
Compared to other so-called first-world, developed countries, average teacher salaries in the United States are comparable, but certainly not the best. The average teachers’ salary in Luxembourg is over $101,000 and in Germany over $80,000, and those countries often offer free or subsidized childcare, health care, and free college tuition, adding substantially to disposable income.
Educating America’s children with highly-qualified teachers should be one of our nation’s highest priorities. Hillsboro is doing well, thank you very much. Having maintained its classroom regimen during the pandemic, it recently announced 9% increases in the salary schedule for administrative, supervisory and non-union employees for 2022-23, with the Ohio Association of Public School Employees (OAPSE) union agreement reflecting similar schedule increases. This reflects very well on Hillsboro’s schools and particularly in the context of Ohio’s rural districts.
The pandemic changed many workforce environments in America and around the world. America’s public education systems will have to adapt and by that I mean being at the vanguard not the rearguard of our changing world. This is no time for America’s systems of public education to become neglected afterthoughts. Teachers are not just what fuels and inspires the success and ambitions of our young people, they are the lifeblood of our nation’s continual achievement and leadership among nations.
Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, retired president of the Denver Council on Foreign Relations, an author and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.