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What's Behind the Teacher Shortage and How Will it Be Resolved?

I graduated in 1969 with a BA in history and an expectation of going to law school. Uncle Sam thought differently, so I tried to compromise by taking an alternative route of national service. I joined the Teacher Corps. Teacher Corps was a Great Society program, like Peace Corps and VISTA; it was a public version of today’s Teach for America, and even though I eventually got to spend some time as a clerk in the air force, I never thought about law school again. I got hooked on teaching.

Point #1: Teaching is a life calling.

As I look back at my first year of teaching, I see an idealistic kid who had majored in history and was now teaching math. College calculus had convinced me that I was not going to be a mathematician, but I put in a lot of time that year trying to understand how to teach math to middle schoolers. Though I know I learned a lot about teaching math, I learned even more about teaching kids. And though I still appreciate what a rich learning experience it was for me, I’m not so sure how rich it was for my students.

Point #2: Teachers need to teach what they know.

That first year of teaching, I was one of a handful of white faces teaching in an all-black school. I worked hard to establish a relationship with my students and their community. I persuaded a young priest at a local Catholic Church to let me use his facility for a Friday night dance. I took my portable stereo system to play the records. Someone stole it from the back of my car when I was cleaning up.          

Discipline was tough. A group of boys in their shop class made me a paddle to use on their rowdy classmates, and even drilled holes in it to cut down resistance and increase the sting of the “licks.” I wouldn’t do it, but I also understood why they thought I needed to.

Point #3: In teaching, like in most other fields, experience matters.

child playing with pattern blocksAs I mentioned above, Teacher Corps was a Great Society program. It had a laudable mission—to improve education for children in inner city schools. However, assigning an inexperienced, advantaged white kid with a history degree to teach math to these disadvantaged, black teenagers in hindsight doesn’t seem like such a good idea, especially for the kids I was trying to help. On top of that, the idealistic goal was that all kids in all schools would have equal opportunities to learn. Since the brightest eighth graders in more advantaged schools were assigned to Algebra I, the brightest eighth graders at my school should have that same opportunity. I remember looking at the achievement test scores of the students in my class. Not surprisingly, most were in the bottom 10% nationally. What would you expect? They had spent eight years in unequal, underfunded, underachieving schools, and now they were supposed to be ready for Algebra I? Those kids were no more ready for Algebra I than I was ready to teach it.

Teaching has always been made difficult by well-intentioned policies. For whatever reason, our schools have become the chosen institution to fix our nation’s problems. In the late 1800s public schools became the assimilating force for wave after wave of immigrants. In the 1950s they were asked to close the missile gap and save America from communism. For the next several decades they were expected to integrate America and wipe out three centuries of racism. So there I was that first year in Teacher Corps, teaching in an all black junior high school, fifteen years after the Supreme Court ruled in Brown vs. Topeka that such segregated schools were unconstitutional, and two decades before desegregation efforts officially ended in the Oklahoma City Public Schools.

So how did these good intentions ultimately play out? The OKCPS was wrecked. When I graduated from a segregated Harding High School in 1965, OKCPS had 72,000 students. When desegregation ended 23 years later, OKCPS had 36,000 students.  But was the district at least desegregated? Not really. In 1970, nearly 71 percent of black students attended school with black enrollment over 70 percent. Today, 71 percent of Hispanic students attend a school with Hispanic enrollment over 70 percent.

And our reliance on schools to fix our social problems continues unabated. Today’s crisis: School shootings. Today’s solution: Arm and train teachers to take down the shooters.  

Point #4: Let teachers do what teachers do best—teach.

After my first year of teaching, I got married. I remember my wife soon returned from a visit to her doctor, and he had asked her about her husband, where I was from, where I’d gone to school, what I was doing. She told him I was from Oklahoma City, had gone to Yale, and was a teacher. His response was short but telling. “What else does he do?”

Point #5: Teachers deserve to be recognized and treated as the professionals they are.

When I was in Teacher Corps, I earned $75 a week. My first year teaching at Norman High School, I made $6,400. When I left public education and came to Westminster in 1977, I had earned a master’s degree, completed a residency for my Ph.D. at Stanford, and taught for five years. I was scheduled to make $10,500 in Norman that year but chose to take a pay cut and come to Westminster. I turned thirty the month school started, and my first child was born four months later. Westminster offered no financial benefits….no health or dental insurance, no retirement, no long or short term disability.

Point #6: Teachers need to be paid as professionals.

I came to Westminster for one reason—to create a new middle school. I dropped out of my Ph.D. program at Stanford because I didn’t want to be a professor. I wanted to teach kids in an environment I thought was best for kids and learning. Westminster gave me the opportunity, freedom, and encouragement to do just that….and 42 years later, I have absolutely no regrets.

Point #7: Teaching is an enriching and fulfilling profession.

children in music class

Despite what you may think, this article isn’t about me. It’s about teachers in general, and teachers at Westminster School in particular. It’s important because teachers are the backbone of any educational program and finding great teachers is a huge challenge. According to MarketWatch, in 1975, 22% of college students majored in education — a higher share than any other major. By 2015, fewer than 10% of college students did. According to Stanford’s Learning Policy Institute (LPI), teacher education enrollment dropped 35% from 2009-2014. As bad as these trends have been, the future looks even bleaker; today, fewer than 5% of college freshmen plan to major in education.

So what is the effect of this decreased supply of teachers? A teacher shortage. If there is any doubt that teachers are in short supply, take a look at the number of emergency certificates that have been issued. In 2011-12, there were 32 emergency certificates issued in Oklahoma all year. The number climbed to 1,925 six years later. As of October 2018, Oklahoma has issued over 2,500 emergency certificates for the 2018-2019 school year with more undoubtedly to come. That’s up 30% from last year, and it has increased in spite of the largest one year bump in teacher salaries in state history.

So what is driving the teacher shortage? As Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford’s Learning Policy Institute shows, compensation and funding are obviously a huge part of the problem. Until this year’s raises, average base teacher salaries in Oklahoma had only increased 2.1%, from $37,550 to $38,350, over the last 12 years. How does that $6,400 I earned as a first year teacher at Norman High School in 1971 compare to salaries for first year teachers in Norman today? Sadly, pretty well. In fact, adjusted for inflation, I earned $1,660 more as a first year teacher in 1971 than a first year teacher earns in Norman today….and that’s after this year’s $6,100 teacher’s raise.

teachers and children playingTo look at salaries another way, a quarter of a century ago, teacher salaries were 1.8% below the salaries of other college-educated professionals; today, they are 17% below….all this in spite of consistent polls that show that Americans rank the contribution of teachers to our society higher than the contributions of physicians, scientists, engineers, and all other occupations aside from soldiers.

As we saw in the teacher walkout last April, however, it’s not just compensation. It’s also class size and the lack of supplies. Every public school teacher I interviewed last summer told me the same thing…class sizes of 28 and books that were too old, too few, and too beat up for kids to use…which is why we donate the worn out textbooks of Westminster kids every year to the public schools. In August, I was struck as I always am at the annual article in the newspaper about teachers lining up to “shop” in a warehouse for free supplies to use with kids in their classrooms. Their only alternative is to buy those supplies themselves. There should be another alternative—sufficiently funding public education.

In addition to increasing funding, a second important element to ending the teacher shortage is to create new pathways to teaching.

As Darling-Hammond notes, “Teachers who are well-prepared and well-mentored are much more likely to stay in teaching, as well as to be effective.”

She supports several types of programs but most relevant to us at Westminster is a “grow your own” approach that provides teaching apprenticeships to interested young people under the guidance of expert teachers. We initiated our Fellowship Program three years ago to do just that, and we have three current or former fellows, two of whom are alums, who continue to be mentored as they develop into quality teachers.

A third element to ending the teacher shortage is to improve school leadership. This includes leadership from the federal level to the school principal. Teachers, as I noted in Point #5, need to be treated as the professionals they are. Think about this: America led the world in education throughout most of the 20th century, but in 1983—thirty-five years ago—a study was published, A Nation at Risk, with these ominous words, “Our nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world….If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” It was a call to arms by President Reagan to improve American public education, but five presidents later things have only continued to decline. American kids were 25th in reading, 26th in science, and 41st in math on the most recent PISA tests. And sadly, our top students when compared against the top students in other countries rank just as poorly.

So who is to blame….and what can we do?

Generally, teachers feel the blame has been placed on them. Think about these two “solutions”—scripted teaching and standardized testing. The idea is that curriculum should be scripted so that all teachers teach the same thing at the same time in the same way, and then be judged on their effectiveness by a standardized test.  

Australian researcher, John Hattie, sarcastically described these efforts this way. “The typical redress [for educational underachievement] has been to devise so-called ‘idiot-proof’ solutions where the proofing has been to restrain the idiots to tight scripts underpinned by a structure of accountability. The national testing movements have thus been introduced to ensure teachers teach the right stuff, concentrate on the right set of processes (specifically to pass pencil and paper tests), and then use the best set of teaching activities to maximize this narrow form of achievement (i.e., lots of worksheets and multiple choice exams).”

Hattie goes on to show that the difference in student achievement based on differences in factors like school leadership, school structures [including charter schools], parent support, and even peer groups altogether improve student achievement far less than “the person who gently closes the classroom door and performs the teaching act, the person who puts into place the end effects of so many policies, who interprets those policies, and who is alone with students during their 15,000 hours of schooling.”

In other words, the single most important factor by far in student achievement is a high quality, professional, classroom teacher.

We spent last year rethinking teaching at Westminster School. We focused broadly on effectiveness, compensation, and professionalism. We started by looking at the research on the characteristics of highly effective teachers.

children on stageFirst, as I learned the hard way nearly fifty years ago, the most highly effective teachers are experienced teachers. They’ve been well trained, hold some sort of certification, teach within that field of certification, and have taught at least three years.

Second, highly effective teachers are also connected teachers. They are caring, fair, respectful, and humorous. They genuinely enjoy kids, relate to them well, and have high expectations for them.

Finally, highly effective teachers are committed teachers. They have high expectations for themselves as well as their students; they maximize learning time through effective classroom management and a well organized and clearly articulated curriculum; they increase understanding through the use of multiple teaching strategies; they dedicate extra time to instructional preparation and reflection; and they wake up far too often in the middle of the night with a new idea to enhance the learning experience for their kids. Our goal is for every faculty member at Westminster School to be a highly effective teacher.

We also focused on compensation. We’ve increased our salary scale, and continue to offer strong financial and work place benefits to our teachers. We want to do more.

First, we want to develop growth opportunities for highly effective teachers, more opportunities for talented teachers who want to do more to earn more. For example, we’re testing a new program of curriculum leaders this year and hope to expand it for 2019-2020.

Second, the income differential between what a first year teacher earns and what a teacher with thirty years of experience earns has traditionally been about 40%. Five years from now, we hope that gap widens to 67% for those with a BA and 75% for those with an MA. Highly effective teachers need and deserve to be compensated as the professionals they are, and we’re working hard, with your support, to do that at Westminster School.

In addition to exploring effectiveness and compensation, we asked this question:

What does it mean to be a truly professional teacher?

First, professionals in all walks of life are expected to adhere to an ethical code of conduct, and professional teachers at Westminster need to demonstrate a strong understanding, appreciation, and support for our school, its culture, and its values.

Second, professionals require autonomy. They expect control over how they do their work, and they deserve to be trusted. Trust includes everything from unlimited access to their classroom to opportunities for travel and professional development to whatever supplies they need to teach effectively.

Third, professionals are responsible and accountable. Professional teachers believe that the work they do with their students significantly impacts their students’ future success and well-being; to that end, they welcome feedback and evaluation to improve their teaching.

Fourth, professionals constantly strive to improve. As I’ve emphasized to our teachers throughout the last year, the question is not whether what we are doing with kids improves their learning. The fact is, almost everything teachers do with kids improves student achievement. The question professional teachers have to ask instead is this: Is what I’m doing improving the achievement of my students the most I can?

Ethics, autonomy, responsibility, accountability, and continuous learning describe most professionals. But there is one more reality for a truly professional teacher. Teaching is a life calling. Those things I learned that first year I taught have served me well for the last fifty years. Let teachers teach…and teach what they know. Experience matters… if we keep improving. Teachers should be recognized…and paid…as the professionals they are. Effective teachers love teaching…but they have to love kids even more. They have to love talking to kids, listening to kids, and figuring out what makes kids tick…what each child thinks, feels, and believes. Teachers understand that by “taking the hands, touching the hearts, and opening the minds” of children, they can change the world….one child at a time. That’s why I’m confident this teacher shortage will soon end. There’s just too much joy and value in teaching to do anything else.