The real roots of our teacher shortage

A recent, widely read New York Times feature by Motoko Rich helped focus needed attention on some of the economic forces that have contributed to a national teacher shortage, among them low pay and the burden of student loan debt.

But while higher pay is crucial, the discussion about teacher supply and demand must move beyond economics. New York Times columnist Frank Bruni did just that a couple days after the original story. After we had a conversation about the teacher shortage, Bruni quoted me in his column as saying: "The No. 1 thing is giving teachers a voice, a real voice." He also went on to cite the joint survey we did this spring with the Badass Teachers Association, which showed that one large source of stress for educators is being left of out key decisions about education policy.

"The political battles over education, along with the shifting vogues about what's best, have left many teachers feeling like pawns and punching bags," Bruni wrote. "And while that's no reason not to implement promising new approaches or to shrink from experimentation, it puts an onus on policy makers and administrators to bring generous measures of training, support and patience to the task."

In addition to discussing the real roots of the teacher shortage with Bruni, I summarized our view on this issue in an Aug. 15 letter to the editor of the Times. Here's the complete text:

"We applaud you for shining a light on the economic forces that helped create the national teacher shortage: low pay, higher student loan debt and recession-linked layoffs. But if you ask teachers why young people are shunning the profession, and why so many abandon it after just a few years, you'll get an earful.

"We have always asked teachers to be a combination of Albert Einstein, Mother Teresa, Mom and Dad. Now, we judge them by a faulty, narrow measure—one standardized test in English and one in math—and then blame them for not being saviors. Teachers are used to the pressure cooker but are stressed out because they aren't getting the support, resources, time and respect they need to do their jobs.

"Educators have been hit with a barrage of new mandates but given little or no support or training to make them work. Think of the debacle in New York: testing kids on content covered under the new Common Core standards before giving teachers the time, curriculum or latitude to actually teach that content, and then using those tests as the basis of teachers' evaluations.

"Thanks to our test-and-punish fixation, high-stakes test prep has eclipsed teaching and learning and is sucking the creativity and joy out of classrooms. New and seasoned teachers want careers that allow them to make a difference, grow and effect change. Sadly, for too many, the profession today appears not to offer these essentials.

"Nationally, we must get our priorities straight and do what's necessary to recruit, support and retain great teachers—in good economic times and bad."