Kids Going Back To School Won’t Be Greeted By Enough Teachers

Schools all over the country are facing teacher shortages as the profession’s pay gap gets worse.

Kids Going Back To School Won’t Be Greeted By Enough Teachers
[Photo: Blaise Hayward/Getty Images]

Millions of kids are heading back to school this month, but in many cases, not enough teachers will be greeting them.


Wisconsin has struggled to attract new teachers after killing collective bargaining laws. New York’s Board of Regents chancellor characterized the state’s teacher shortage as “severe” in some areas. Maine is facing the worst shortage of special ed teachers it can remember. To deal with teacher shortages, states like Kansas and Michigan have voted to lower licensing requirements. The list gets longer: Texas, Oklahoma, and Illinois too. Some states and schools are considering “virtual” classrooms or staffing.

It’s not too surprising it’s getting harder to recruit teachers. They can get a higher-paid, less difficult job by doing something else.

[Photo: Flickr user Historic Bremen]

A study released in August by the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., showed that public school teachers today are paid 17% less than people with similar levels of college education, or if accounting for benefits, 11% less.

In fact, what they call the “teacher pay penalty” is the biggest it’s ever been. While female teachers used to be paid 14% more than their peers in 1960, now they are paid 14% less. For male teachers the penalty is worse: They are paid 25% less than they could earn in another profession. More experienced teachers have the worst pay gap. Unionized teachers had it slightly better than non-unionized workers.

Of course, your job choice isn’t always all about pay, but it certainly plays a role in the dynamics of shortages, the report notes. Fewer people are entering the teaching profession in general–and women especially have many more choices than they did in 1960. At the same, many teachers are retiring, but more importantly, many more younger or mid-career teachers are leaving the profession than in the past, often dissatisfied by the pressures of standardized testing, large classroom sizes, high-profile layoffs prompted by state budget cuts–and being underpaid and overworked.

What is the solution to this? One controversial but obvious idea is to simply pay teachers more money (assuming states could magically come up with the funds). The Equity Project, a charter school in Manhattan, has for the last six years embarked on a radical experiment in doing just this. It pays teachers $125,000 a year, with extra performance bonuses. It’s still early to tell, but the school has gotten some positive results–though it too has struggled with teacher retention due to the high pressures and demands.


Simply increasing teacher pay to unrealistic levels is probably not the answer that can scale-up. But from growing teacher shortages around the country, it’s clear that governments need to do something to make teaching a desirable profession once again. At least it’s got one thing going for it: it’s one of the few jobs that robots aren’t going to take over anytime soon.

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About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.