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 teachers:
In an August 2022 paper, “Is there a national teacher shortage?” Tuan D. Nguyen and Chanh B. Lam, both of the University of Kansas, and Paul Bruno of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, wrote that they
In an email, Nguyen argued that
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:
These declines in the numbers of qualified teachers take place in an environment of stagnant or decline economic incentives, he wrote:
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 Institute, found 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:
Raising teacher skill levels can significantly improve student performance, they argue:
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:
The teaching of disputed subjects in schools has compounded many of the difficulties in American education. In “Walking a Fine Line — Educators’ Views on Politicized Topics in Schooling,” a Rand report published earlier this year that was based on surveys conducted in January and February 2022 of 2,360 K-12 teachers and 1,540 principals, Ashley Woo, together with eight fellow 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:
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.”
White educators working in predominately white school systems reported substantially more pressure to deal with politically divisive issues than educators of color and those working in prominently 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:
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 face 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 that
These political conflicts, the authors wrote,
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
The analysis by Kraft and Lyon poses a crucial issue for those concerned about the quality of teaching in public schools:
Some of the specifics in the Kraft-Lyon study:
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 implementation of “a package of reforms centered on high-stakes evaluation systems”:
In addition, Kraft, Brunner, Dougherty and Schwegman write:
The authors’ conclusion provides little comfort:
The reforms, Kraft and colleagues continued, increased
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, in order 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.
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