Why teacher availability is declining

662 districts across the nation adapted a four-day week schedule in 2020, due to teacher and substitute shortages. Since then, the number has only increased. According to a recent educational policy analysis, teacher demand is expected to balloon as the youth population rises in America by three million over the next 10 years. The problem compounds because proportionally to students, fewer and fewer teachers are entering the education system. A positive feedback loop is created– the teachers that are left are often overburdened and further underpaid, making more quit. To solve this problem, policymakers must analyze the factors that have caused it.

There are four main components to the teacher shortage. First, fewer are coming. Second, fewer are staying. Teacher turnover is at an all-time high. Then, remaining teachers are expected to take on more students per class and teach different educational programs than prior years. Fourth, inequality in wealth leads suburban teacher jobs to be coveted and inner-city jobs to be left vacant. This is because higher taxes in wealthy suburban areas translate into higher salaries and better working conditions for the teachers who work there. Funding is allocated to school districts based on the taxes families pay, along with student achievement. Education has also become more politicized in all fields, but especially in the social sciences. Between banning important novels, instating ‘word bans’ in school (for example, the “Don’t Say Gay” law in Florida), and increased pressure to teach revisionist history without mentioning slavery, teachers and schools have been constantly in the political limelight. 

College tuition rates have skyrocketed in recent years. This means that there is now a problem where there was not one before. Teachers may graduate and work a full-time equivalency job with a salary too low to make meaningful contributions to their student loan debt. As inflation rose over the last decade, median teacher salary actually dropped. In Wisconsin, the average teacher salary was $62,000. In 2021, it was $54,000. As their college debt compounds over time, prospective teachers could end up with loans hanging over their head into middle age. Shortages are especially high in math, science, and foreign languages because of higher salaried options for those majors elsewhere. The highest demand is for special education teachers; the job requires a bachelor’s degree but pays a salary on the lower end of teacher jobs. Fewer teachers are passing their certification exams on the first try, and the results vary greatly based on subject. Especially crucial has been the Foundations of Reading Test, which is required for teachers who are in elementary education, special education, or reading teacher. In the Wisconsin 20202021 school year, only around 50% of teachers passed the reading certification exam on the first try. Pass rates were also especially low on STEM-specific subjects– the first-time pass rate for the mathematics exam in 20202021 was 43%. 

Although teacher matriculations have risen in Wisconsin, according to a 30-page report published by the Department of Instruction at the beginning of this year, teacher retention within the state has decreased. In an average group of 100 first-year teachers in Wisconsin, by the fifth year they are teaching, 35 will have relocated to a different state, often to pursue better benefits, salary, or perceived quality of life. One way to try and measure teacher needs is through tracking emergency certifications. These are temporary teaching licenses that are issued to under or unqualified teachers in the case of a severe shortage. Across the nation, 109,000 positions were estimated to be filled by teachers who were not fully qualified for their job in 2016. The Wisconsin Department of Instruction issued 3,600 emergency licenses, a third of which were for special education jobs. After Act 10 was passed by Scott Walker in 2011, cutting teacher retirement benefits and weakening their unions’ powers, teacher attrition rates have fallen.

Additionally, teachers in this decade are having to confront a problem little seen in previous years– technology in classrooms. Although students have had phones and computers for years, technology has proliferated within classroom settings especially after Covid. In Shorewood, after virtual school, more teachers began to have Google Classrooms and online assignments. This can make schoolwork more efficient and easy to manage, because everything is in one place. On the other hand, technology can lead to decreased focus in classrooms and a lower attention span.  In a typical class period, teachers have widely varying strategies for how to deal with students who are disengaged, or on technological devices. They are not expected to know how to handle it, but for the sake of learning, they must find a way. The administration should be paying attention to the prevalence of phones and earbuds while teachers are trying to teach, not instating bathroom passes and mandating Chromebooks that many students do not use. Based on retail price, the cost of buying a Chromebook for each high school and middle school student currently enrolled in the school district is approximately $126,000. (The cost was probably a bit lower, because of bulk or educational discounts.) Still, that’s almost twice the average teacher salary at Shorewood, which is around $65,000 a year. 

Students in Shorewood have been first-hand witnesses to some of these issues playing out within the school district and community. Three beloved teachers are retiring this year, Mr. Jacobson, Ms. Schwinn, and Mr. Peterson. Two are in the social studies department and their classes, Political Theory and Anthropology, will not be offered at all. The teachers leaving were able to teach those classes because they had master’s degrees in the corresponding fields. Higher education was previously supported by a Shorewood steps and lanes program, which offered financial incentives for pursuing a master’s degree. As budgeting has gotten tighter, the district eliminated this program. Act 10 also played a role in this program’s elimination, which was unpopular among the teacher’s association. Prior to the act, they would have been able to negotiate for the program’s existence. Since the act prevents negotiation for salary, they cannot.

Next year, some classes that did not have a minimum of 15 students were canceled. This includes Spanish 5 and Advanced PLTW. In other classes, teachers personally reached out to convince students to enroll so that their class could run. The loss of these classes will have the greatest impact on high-achieving high school students who would aim to challenge themselves through taking them. In many cases, students were informed about the canceled classes before their teachers were. Because of uneven shortages, classes with a lower number of students, like ELS (Environmental Lit and Science), are allowed to run regardless. The average student-teacher ratio in Wisconsin high schools is 15 to 1, which calls into question why the floor for a class had to be so high. 

Teachers should not have to sacrifice their personal life and a high salary to have a fulfilling job experience. Potentially the most vital job to the future and lifeblood of America is highly devalued, socially and financially, in society today. A particularly toxic counterargument is that a low salary helps “weed out” teachers who would seek the job out of greed, not a higher sense of purpose. The same argument is used to underpay college professors, whose salaries remain relatively stagnant although tuition costs have jumped by 65% since 2003, adjusted for inflation. This argument has no basis in reality. Most teachers only want to be paid a fair wage for their labor, and this argument– usually proffered by politicians or executives– attempts to stigmatize this reasonable aspiration. It is true that teachers who only want to work for the money would likely not be good role models for American youth. But it is not selfish to expect to be treated compassionately by students and parents. It is not selfish to want a work-life balance, or to want to live a life that is not paycheck-to-paycheck. It is not selfish to want to teach a class that listens. It is not selfish for someone to respect their time, their work, and their labor. By destabilizing teachers’ unions, reducing mean incomes, and replacing face-to-face interaction with computers, nationwide, that is exactly what we have been asking our teachers to do.