‘We need teaching to be doable’

Education experts search for answers as fewer new people head into teaching profession
An attendee of the teacher job fair held at the DeKalb County School District's headquarters walks by a welcome sign. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

An attendee of the teacher job fair held at the DeKalb County School District's headquarters walks by a welcome sign. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

At recent graduation celebrations, I met college graduates bound for finance positions in New York, tech jobs in Seattle and medical schools in South Carolina. I congratulated high school grads off to Georgia State University to study film, Kennesaw State for psychology and University of Georgia for accounting.

I didn’t meet any aspiring educators unless a yoga teacher counts. I took that as a troubling sign of a profession under siege.

A study by the Southern Regional Education Board and researchers at Vanderbilt University shows 15 Southern states documented fewer new teacher candidates graduating from preparation programs with 23% fewer teachers completing educator preparation in 2022 than in 2013.

College students prefer professions with higher paychecks. For example, the University of Georgia awarded 217 undergraduate degrees in the education field in fiscal year 2023, compared to 2,524 degrees in business, including finance, management and marketing. A decade ago, UGA bestowed 400 undergraduate education degrees and 1,372 business degrees, according to University System of Georgia data.

Why are business careers the choice of so many? Because the median income for UGA general finance majors a year out of college is $62,773, according to University System of Georgia degree pay data. For an English teacher, it’s $47,331. At the 10-year mark, the finance grad’s median annual salary grows to $147,494, compared to $63,211 for the teacher.

The decline in trained teachers affects the classroom. An analysis of 2020-21 data by the Southern Regional Education Board revealed that 30% of the total teacher workforce in the South was inexperienced, uncertified or teaching out of field. It was worse in Georgia, where 38% of the teacher workforce fell into those categories.

The National Center for Education Statistics reports 86% of K-12 public schools faced challenges hiring teachers for the 2023-24 school year. The most difficult positions to fill were special education, chemistry, physics and foreign language.

Low pay is not the sole reason young people shun education degrees. They see their own teachers under siege from orchestrated political attacks and unreasonable expectations.

Interest in the profession among high school seniors and college freshmen has reached the lowest level in 50 years, according to a new working paper out of the Annenberg Institute at Brown University. The number of prospective teachers earning a teaching license each year fell by more than 100,000 between 2006 and 2021.

At a recent online panel on effective teacher evaluations, the co-author of the paper warned that focusing on how to rate teachers can’t ignore the decline of young people willing to become teachers.

“In the last 10 years, the percentage of parents who say, ‘I want my kid to be a teacher’ has dropped by 47%. The percentage of high school and college students who say, ‘I want to be a teacher’ has dropped by 40%. Teacher job satisfaction has dropped by 26%,” said Matthew Kraft, associate professor of education and economics at Brown University. “We have to be honest with ourselves that if we want to improve teaching and teacher quality, I don’t think we’re in a world in which it’s all about removing low-performing teachers and that’s our emphasis. Rather, exactly the opposite, we need to do everything we can to make the teaching profession more attractive and more sustainable.”

“We need teaching to be doable,” said researcher Morgan Polikoff, an education professor and co-director of the University of Southern California EdPolicy Hub during a Harvard Graduate School of Education online series on the teaching profession. “Teachers do not need to be under attack constantly nor burdened with catering to each individual child, their parents and their whims. We need to teach children things in school and not be distracted by adult nonsense.”

The Georgia Legislature is guilty of ratcheting up the nonsense. In a state where far too many children live in poverty, die from gun violence and go without health care, the GOP has decided the most urgent threats are a transgender girl winning a track meet or a high school student reading a book with an LGBTQ+ character.

Wooing hard-right conservatives, Georgia lawmakers fast-tracked the removal of books from school libraries and approved a “parent’s bill of rights,” and a vague “divisive concepts” law. In more culture war pandering, the Georgia Professional Standards Commission last year stripped references to “diversity” from the rules that underpin state teacher prep programs and eliminated a definition of diversity that included race, sexual orientation and gender identity as examples. So, teachers seeking to give voice and representation to marginalized students have effectively been muzzled.

A RAND survey released this year found 65% of K-12 teachers now limit classroom discussions about political and social issues for fear of reprisals. What Georgia parents need to realize is the stress of walking that line every day will lead more teachers to walk out the door.

And there’s no line forming to take their place.