Most teachers love their jobs and are good at them. As in any profession, there are exceptions, but what’s scary about the education profession now is not that there are enormous numbers of bad teachers (there aren’t) but enormous numbers of good teachers who have recently retired or soon will.
Some absolutely can’t wait to get out the schoolhouse door for the last time, and their replacements are not exactly flooding into teacher prep courses. Add the 44 percent of new teachers who never make it past their first five years and we have a full-blown teacher shortage. Here are the numbers from the Georgia Teachers Retirement System:
Credit: Maureen Downey
Credit: Maureen Downey
Note the increase in retirements for those with less than 30 years in the classroom. Not only are we losing 44 percent of new teachers, it appears those with 10 to 25 years are opting out, too. This problem of finding good teachers is also a function of geography. Many systems -- especially rural schools -- are struggling to find qualified teachers. It will soon get worse.
The state Department of Education says there are 1.7 million students in Georgia’s public schools and that close to 7,000 new teachers are hired each year. In 2015, there were 19,428 students enrolled in University System of Georgia teacher education programs. If all of those students graduate and seek employment over the next four years, the best-case scenario will mean a little under 5,000 teachers graduate each year from 2015-2018.
The Governor’s Office of Student Achievement says there were 110,059 teachers and 8,449 leaders (118,508 total) employed in schools in 2015. About 25 percent of the teacher workforce is made up of teachers with less than five years of experience and 51 percent had less than 10 years. The University System of Georgia says the production of new teachers -- not those who enter teacher education courses but the ones who graduate -- is down 20 percent from 2011-2015.
Specific teaching areas like math, science and special education are experiencing even greater shortages, and many systems in Georgia have positions that remain unfilled. In a national survey of math educators, the Association of Mathematics Teacher Educators found three reasons for the drop in prospective math teachers:
•More money available in other careers;
•Perceived or imagined perceptions of teaching (high-stakes testing, de-professionalization of teaching, lack of bargaining rights and teacher burnout);
•Negative perception and lack of respect for the profession.
I found these perceptions in line with my own observations, but decided to ask present and former teachers what they thought. This is not scientific data gathering, and I make no claim that these perceptions represent the beliefs and ideas of all teachers, but here are some responses:
•Raises would be great, but capping the experience raises at 17 years doesn’t encourage us to stay any longer than we have to.
•Most teachers don’t go into the profession with expectations of financial reward, but they do need to see they are respected.
•Raise teacher salaries every time politicians vote themselves a raise. Don’t tell me we can’t afford teacher raises. The money suddenly appears every time they want one for themselves or their staffs.
•Stop micromanagement and buying every program that comes along. The curriculum is now scripted and there is no opportunity for creativity.
•Eliminate all standardized testing during school hours. Effective testing is diagnostic. Current testing serves no educational purpose when we don’t see scores until the following year.
•I have a great fear of litigation (even after 19 years of teaching) because of the complexity and rules of testing and special education services. Parents seem to automatically assume every issue is the teacher’s fault.
•Teachers enter the profession because they love teaching. Paperwork, testing, test prep, unpaid duties, larger classes and micromanagement make it impossible to find the time to actually teach.
•Our politicians listen to the wrong people. Teachers are rarely included as part of any discussion about improving education. It’s like a baseball owner that thinks he knows the baseball side of operations. Having control of baseball finances doesn’t mean you can judge baseball talent. The same applies to teaching.
•Professional development is time wasted. Teachers could teach each other much more effectively than anyone else if given the chance.
•We are operating on a calendar that is a carryover from 150 years ago. We need a six-hour day with 210-225 days a year and a summer break with no summer school.
•Discipline is deteriorating because administrators worry too much about numbers and parent reaction and central office interference and not the negative effects of misbehavior on the kids in the classes who want to be there and want to learn. Students are often allowed to avoid any consequence at all for misbehavior.
•The federal Department of Education should be eliminated. They collect Title I money from states and send it back to the states. Name one thing they do to help kids learn or help teachers in the classroom.
•Drop the “data driven” sham. Data are not sensitive to context and kids are not data.
•No class should have more than 24 students. Period. Right now, I have 34 in my smallest class.
•Why do we continue with the misguided belief all students should go to college? We need to restore CTAE classes and diplomas.
•New teachers are usually the ones placed in the classes with the most at risk students. They don’t have the experience or the skills to deal with them, and it becomes a sink or swim situation very quickly.
I once attended a meeting on organizational efficiency hosted by the CEO of Chick-fil-A. Someone asked him, "What do all these people in your corporate office do?" He replied: "Every person in our organization has one job, and that's to sell chicken sandwiches. If you're not selling chicken sandwiches you'd better be doing something to help those that do."
We need more people helping teachers be effective teachers. More rules won’t help, more testing is a continued waste of money, time and resources, and political interference is a continual roadblock to effective teaching and learning.
This is what will help:
Believe in and support teachers. Poverty is the cause of achievement gaps and the number one obstacle to educational success. Stop the culture of blaming teachers. Teachers don't cause poverty any more than law enforcement causes crime or doctors create disease.
Invest in teachers. Professional development should be experienced teachers working with less experienced teachers. Pay great teachers to share their knowledge and ideas in ways that allow them to stay in the classroom. One great teacher working with three or four others is a powerful tool. Large groups of teachers listening to one "expert" in an auditorium is not.
Pay great teachers more to work in high poverty schools. Working in these schools is difficult. Make it worth the effort for teachers that want to increase their salaries and stay in the classroom. Want to attract great teachers to high poverty areas? Pay them to travel and teach there. Want to identify high poverty schools? Simply look at standardized test scores. They don't tell you anything about teaching and learning but do serve wonderfully to point out through the zip code effect the level of poverty in a given area.
Eliminate standardized testing for anything other than diagnostic purposes. The money saved would be more beneficial invested in teaching and learning than in the autopsy reports generated at the insistence of "accountabullies" in the name of false accountability. Allow teachers the opportunity to teach without having to teach to the test.
Don't believe in magic bullets. The answer is not in canned programs guaranteed to produce higher test scores but in the power of great teachers to reach students on a personal level. Invest in people and not in programs. Success through standardization is a myth. Every student needs and deserves individualized learning at all levels.
Technology is a tool for teachers and not an answer unto itself. For every child who learns through technology alone there are more who fail miserably without the intervention and guidance of a teacher. Lower class sizes, modernize the school calendar and give teachers the time and tools to teach.
Help prevent legislative meddling. Unfunded mandates and legislative attempts at applying standardized solutions to local issues have done more to hurt public education than to help. Expecting every child to achieve at the same rate at the same level ignores fundamental differences in human development...sort of like Arnie Duncan's plan to test special education students out of special education through higher expectations.
Top down implementation does not work in education any more than it does in government. Issuing a decree that all children will succeed does not automatically mean that all children will succeed any more than outlawing death will make doctors more successful in treating diseases...but it will discourage doctors.