As Betsy DeVos settles into her new office at the Department of Education, she has some major issues to contend with, other than her complete lack of experience. Setting aside the apocalyptic narrative about American children falling behind other nations, and the boogeyman narrative about “bad teachers” who are causing the problems, DeVos will need a remedy for a seldom-discussed bleak reality: teacher shortages. Just a quick search of the term reveals news reports from this month about severe shortages in Florida, South Carolina, California, and Washington. In my home state of Alabama, a shortage of that magnitude may be coming. Last April, a guest editorial published by al.com explained that “the number of students entering teaching programs in Alabama colleges and universities had dropped 45 percent since 2008.”
The problem is morale. In the years since the passage of No Child Left Behind, in 2001, the obsession with testing has been a bane for classroom teachers, who are trying desperately to appease politicians and administrators who demand higher scores. In the years since, classroom teachers have had extra layers of pressure from accountability measures that threaten their job security if those scores don’t come up. And these new requirements came during and immediately after the Great Recession, which resulted in staff reductions, supply funding decreases, and benefits cuts. Finally, even more pressure has been put on by media portrayals about “failing” education systems – from NBC’s Education Nation segments to the film “Waiting for Superman” – and we’ve got an often-maligned career field that fewer people want to enter. (Last November, Alabama’s governor even said publicly that our education system “sucks,” which didn’t sit too well with teachers and, I’m sure, didn’t make anyone want to become one.)
Setting aside the political buzzwords for pretend solutions – school choice, vouchers, accountability – I see myriad issues that need to be addressed on the classroom level first. First, America’s school systems need to hire tens of thousands of teachers to reduce class sizes to levels that are optimal for learning. Once we’re all staffed up, teachers should be supplied with what we need to work effectively: facilities, supplies, resources, and technology. (We hear a lot about “America’s crumbling infrastructure”— just take a look at some of our public schools.) After that is done, teachers should be given time to work with students under those optimal conditions, before higher-ups really look hard at test scores again. If the daily working conditions for teachers improve, we’ll have more people willing to be, and remain, teachers.
Though morale is a big part of the problem, public relations-style programs that try to finesse people into becoming teachers won’t work. Those programs might convince some people to major in education in college and to seek jobs in the teaching field, but once they enter actual classrooms . . . they’ll see what their real working conditions are. Facing thirty years of it, many of those young teachers will move to other occupations. It can’t be smoke and mirrors achieved by PSAs. It has got to be a real, substantive change in the daily realities.
Last May, in a post called “Tiny Glimmers of Hope,” I referenced a then-recent proclamation by Gov. Bentley about “Grow Our Own,” a joint program of the Alabama Education association and Future Teachers of America to recruit young people to the teaching profession. The proclamation ends by saying that it:
encourages local boards of education and all educational organizations statewide to support these special programs through activities that demonstrate the true importance of the teaching profession and the opportunities they provide for students to achieve personal and professional success.
I agree 100% about the “true importance of the teaching profession.” We are told by politicians and administrators to value and to teach every child, and to consider that any of them could be the next Steve Jobs, the next Martin Luther King, Jr., or the next Maya Angelou. So, my question becomes, why would we put one of those future geniuses or leaders in an overcrowded classroom with inadequate resources and a frustrated instructor?
I’m not ignorant to the amount of political will that it would require to raise taxes and fund schools adequately. People don’t like tax increases, even for schools, especially people who don’t have school-age children, but sacrifices will be necessary if we want to improve our schools. And who is more worthy of our sacrifices than our children? Teachers know that, because we do it every day, and if we want more teachers, then some people who aren’t teachers are going to have make some sacrifices, too.