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The Solution to the Teacher Shortage? Entrepreneurial Innovation

By Jeanne Allen

Across the country, states are implementing laws to address what has become reported as an international epidemic -- shortages of teachers not just in the US but in almost every country.  Not only are fewer people with state-required credentials not available to teach, but surveys suggest almost half are considering leaving the profession.

To address this, states are both lowering their hiring criteria and lowering standards altogether! According to the Kansas City Star Missouri districts have “been rehiring retired teachers, training counselors and coaches to teach and even putting unqualified teachers in classrooms.” The “shortage” is most severe in urban and rural areas, and districts are reporting lower than average applications.

In Illinois the “Governor JB Pritzker signed a law eliminating a requirement for teacher candidates to pass basic skills test to get an educator license.” 

The culprit, of course, is argued to be salaries, as surveys suggest evidence more than half are considering leaving the profession for both a lack of flexibility and pay. But is that the problem? Or is it a deficiency of the actual way the teacher profession is constructed, and the rules by which teachers work?

Says Swing Education, “At any given time, almost one-half of teachers are actively looking for a different job. Many teachers report that a lack of professional development and growth opportunities causes them to leave their positions. Even schools that have a reliable substitute teaching pool and budget for professional development may not take into account teachers’ individual growth and development needs. Ensuring teachers remain engaged is crucial to preventing burnout.”

Does engagement equate with money alone? Millions of people make much more than teachers, and many, many make less. Satisfaction -- and happiness -- is rarely correlated to income.Writing for The Atlantic, Liz Hicks interviewed leading University Education Professors. One confirmed what I’ve heard repeatedly over the years: “Higher pay doesn’t necessarily lead to a better retention rate, though. “[Some] studies suggest that teachers are more interested in working at schools where the conditions of work are good rather than in getting paid more,” Thomas Smith, a professor at Vanderbilt University’s education school also pointed to a study by the Benwood Foundation that offered teachers in Chattanooga large bonuses to go teach in lower-performing schools. The study found that few teachers were willing to move for this kind of offer. (In fact, according to Smith, the initiative had to be reengineered to offer bonuses to teachers already in those schools.)

The crux of the problem is, as As Richard Ingersoll of the  University of Pennsylvania put it, “Teachers in schools do not call the shots. They have very little say.”

The science on happiness underscores why many may be leaving - or not entering - the profession.  According to Arthur Brooks  based on research from the University of Chicago, “an external locus of control brings unhappiness,” which, in the case of teachers, is almost everything! They can not only not control the conditions that bring students to their classes or programs, but in a majority of schools and almost all traditional public, they have little say in what they do to improve those conditions. Says Brooks about a study regarding college students,  “an external locus is correlated with worse academic achievement, more stress and higher levels of depression.” And it applies to anyone whose daily lives are “occupied by events outside her control.” 

Those events center around precisely the other reason teachers do not relish returning to school every September anymore -- it’s because compared to other professions, teachers have the least flexibility, the most bureaucracy, and aren’t financially rewarded for the level of their work, the degree to which they work, the very EFFORT they make to perform better.  Not only is their pay uniform, set by pay scales that the states often prescribe, and that districts are given license to distribute in ways they see fit (with paid bureaucracy often taking precedent) but unions demand uniformity, “equality,” and that no factor of teaching merit higher salaries save for seniority and tenure!

The National Council on Teacher Quality argues reports that “decisions about teacher pay are often left to district discretion [discretion by the way that is largely pressured or created by teachers unions], every state can support districts in reforming teacher compensation. By directing or encouraging districts to strategically pay teachers, states have an opportunity to help ensure that teachers are meaningfully compensated for exemplary classroom performance, while simultaneously leveraging a powerful recruitment tool for hard-to-staff positions.”

That, however, is not what happens in most cases. Many point to other countries, where pay is higher, as the answer.  But those countries typically don’t have enormous districts. Look at Luxembourg and Switzerland, both of which afford their small “cantons” (districts) which have considerable flexibility, determining their own “school calendar, education structure, methods of teaching, and curricula, although there are agreements in place to coordinate the latter across the country.”

They also are highly performance driven in education.

And indeed that is the key to creating an effective and attractive education  profession -- and one that makes our educators happy -- driving both decisions and funds to the school level in order to ensure that decisions about the people who are around the students are made closest to them. That’s how entrepreneurs start and succeed, driven by localized and rapid decision making, able to change course when conditions warrant, able to derive joy from their own endeavors, able to grow what they start, and able to reap the rewards for success. 

In the same way, teacher compensation should be a reflection of the scope of the work a teacher performs, such as what they are able to create, how many students they teach and how often,  what other responsibilities they have. We might consider the value to the consumer of the school’s various programs. A music or fine arts-focused school pay a higher premium to the artists who come to teach, whereas a STEM-speciality school might want to incentive scientists to teach more than others. But differentiated pay is fought vigorously by teachers unions who believe paying more for doing more is somehow unfair!

Not only should we differentiate based on skills, needs, abilities and more, we should be considering innovative hiring solutions to improve the pool of people who stay or become part of the education sector. For example, retired baby boomers often have time to contribute and some have shared with me that they’d easily consider teaching at least three times per week in a specialty area or  to mentor and support a teacher. Educators or others who recently have had children might want to teach online from home and go into the classroom for limited hours. Many teachers might want the full eight-hour day and take on additional administration responsibilities throughout the entire year, warranting much additional pay.

While thousands of variations of employment like this exists in other sectors, none of these  potential innovations in work exist in education. Except for private schools or charter schools in states with highly flexible laws, teacher compensation is not set by schools but instead guided by years of cumulative state lawmaking and district mandates, which themselves are often determined by labor negotiations with unions. 

There are some encouraging signs of change, but they are baby steps toward the ultimate and necessary reformation of the profession. Some states, like Louisiana and Utah, have legislated that performance be taken into consideration when paying teachers.  North Carolina and Florida emphasize teacher effectiveness in determining pay scales. In Indiana, salary is based on numerous factors like teacher evaluation, education/experience, and student academic need. Teachers with more than two years of experience who produce subpar evaluations cannot be eligible for pay raises.

Ohio has set up grants to incentivize teachers working in high-need areas with competitive salaries. Other states, like Arizona and Tennessee, allow pay for differentiated positions. When need in a subject area is especially high (such as the STEM fields, for example) extra provisions in salary and grants can be made available to these teachers.

But these are small and modest measures compared to the enormity of the problem: that we hire, and expect teachers to perform work according to someone else’s plans, ideas, rules and requirements. Our educators do yeoman’s work despite the odds -- just imagine what they could if they had control!

America currently faces an annual estimated shortage of more than 100,000 teachers, and the deficit continues to grow. Internationally, it’s estimated to be in the tens of millions of teachers we will need to educate all our students. Our nation is full of people who can and would gladly be part of educating our kids, but they won’t enter a profession that is like a straightjacket, limiting the occupation to certain times of day, locations and uniformity over uniqueness.  And districts won’t hire people who don’t have the required credential, despite it rarely having anything to do with the quality of instruction a teacher can provide.

It’s time to turn education on its head and reboot the entire teaching profession. Give educators the opportunity to be experts as well as entrepreneurs, being as innovative or structured as they need, when they need it, to impart the wisdom they are hired to deliver, paying them for what and how much and how well they do what they do.  Give entrepreneurs the opportunity to join the profession, and give people from all walks of life the chance to engage in educating in a variety of ways. That’s how we will retain and attract the best we can offer. All other arguments and policy prescriptions about money, union demands and strikes in the name of equality are a disservice -- and a distraction -- to a critical and noble profession. And they won’t do anything to stem the tide of a shortage of high quality individuals needed to teach our youth.


Jeanne Allen is Founder and CEO of CER, the Center for Education Reform.