A Georgia education professor says: “Somebody in charge is going to have to bite the bullet and finally admit that raising educational achievement means fighting poverty, equalizing educational funding from the state, and yes, raising teacher pay.”

Low pay, underfunded schools and unrealistic expectations make teaching a tough sell

Today, Gainesville education professor Bryan Sorohan furthers our discussion of the declining enrollment in teacher education programs, an issue I wrote about earlier this week.

I discussed a new analysis by the Center for American Progress that cited about a 40% decline in enrollment in Georgia teacher prep programs between 2010 and 2018. 

In a guest column, Sorohan delves into this piece of the CAP report: 

Declining interest in the teaching profession may be related to a fundamental mismatch: The work is challenging and complex, but the pay, training, and prestige do not reflect this. College-educated professionals have other career options that provide them with better working conditions and pay and responsibilities that increase over the course of their career as they become more skilled in their chosen field.

By Bryan Sorohan

That statement in the report implies a whole world of issues that need to be much more deeply explored if we want to figure out how to get more highly talented and motivated students to choose education as a major. Whether one accepts that there is a looming teacher shortage or not, improving the number of highly-qualified teachers should be an uncontroversial goal.

Teacher candidates in Georgia have to pass an array of tests before being certified, both traditional and performance-based. They must now pass a series of tests on basic academic skills and teacher ethics before they can even be admitted to a teacher education program and pass further rigorous tests in subject knowledge and pedagogy during their senior year. 

During student teaching, which I personally recall as one of the most challenging periods of my long academic career, today’s students must pass the EdTPA, which is a highly challenging performance-based test. All of these tests are evaluated by third parties, not schools of education. The state periodically raises the cut score for passing (which is an odd assessment practice, usually determining proficiency means identifying a performance level and sticking with it). 

All of this testing means that student teachers who pass are more professionally-prepared than ever, and schools of education are held accountable for pass rates, among other measures. 

That testing system is not necessarily a cause for lower enrollment, however, and many other professions (healthcare, legal, etc.) also have multiple assessments that are necessary for licensure. The kicker, as ever, comes down to potential pay, career prestige, and some factors not identified in the CAP analysis, particularly the expectation that teachers will be held accountable for factors they have no control over for their students. 

Education professor Bryan Sorohan

Pay will probably always be an issue, but the fact that higher pay attracts more qualified employees will also never change, and teaching is not magically excepted from this principle. Career prestige is an intangible, but being expected to accept constant, ill-informed criticism of challenging work is not an attractive factor for talented college students. 

The elephant in the room, however, is that despite years of research showing that the largest factor affecting test score variation is the socioeconomic status of the student’s family and school district, no one will acknowledge that intractable problem. 

Nobody wants to work in a job where they will be vilified for the results of conditions over which they have no control. The problem is compounded by the fact that the poorest schools pay teachers significantly less than the wealthiest ones. 

I suspect that many smart young people would be attracted to a challenge like raising the achievement of students in poverty if they thought their hard work would be decently rewarded. The issue of teaching in poor school districts is a feedback loop: lower pay and less support challenges even very smart and talented teachers, and fewer are motivated to work in such schools. 

Yet, the quality of the teacher affects a whole array of educational outcomes that are not narrowly defined by simple test scores. I suspect if we dig into the stats on teachers leaving the profession after five years or less, we’d find that the majority of those who left were working in the most challenged schools. 

No other profession really faces this issue: just try telling a healthcare professional that they are accountable for obesity rates or life expectancy, and you’ll hear all about how those things are dependent on factors beyond their control. They’re right, of course, but teachers identifying similar factors affecting their outcomes are invariably accused of “making excuses.”

College students know these things, and, in a sense, we are being grossly unfair by denigrating the quality of the ones who look these obstacles in the face and still decide to work so hard to become teachers. 

Somebody in charge is going to have to bite the bullet and finally admit that raising educational achievement means fighting poverty, equalizing educational funding from the state, and yes, raising teacher pay. I suspect that the enrollment in teacher education programs would rise alongside such efforts. Anyone who won’t face those issues is simply not serious about improving schools.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.