Why Are Teachers Leaving the Profession And What Can Be Done to Reverse That Trend

Teachers are leaving the profession in big numbers and they have many good reasons to do so. Based on the department of education information and publicly available data on teacher shortages for every state in the U.S, there are at least 36,000 vacant positions along with at least 163,000 positions being held by under-qualified teachers, both of which are conservative estimates of the extent of teacher shortages nationally.

When we are talking about teachers leaving, the immediate reasons that jump to mind are the stressful conditions that teachers had to deal with during the pandemic and the cultural war issues they have been faced with in some of these states (e.g., Florida). However, the statistics of teachers mostly leaving the profession after five years existed even before the pandemic. There are several reasons for that and teachers’ wage is on top of the list. Wages are essentially unchanged from 2000 to 2020 after adjusting for inflation. There is a growing gap between the pay of all college graduates and teacher salaries from 1979 to 2021, with a sharp increase in the differential since 2010. In 1979, the average teacher’s weekly salary was 22.9 percent less than other college graduates. By 2021, teachers made 32.9 percent less than what other graduates made.

The Impact On Teacher Quality

The low earning power of the teacher profession also has an impact on teacher quality. The incentive of college students to choose the teaching profession is not very high and lately it has been even lower. Lower wages that teachers can expect are also leading to a less qualified teaching workforce. In a study using data from 33 countries collected by the O.E.C.D.’s Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, the scholars found that teachers in the United States perform worse than the average teacher sample-wide in numeracy, and in literacy they perform slightly better than average. They also found that Increasing teacher numeracy skills by one standard deviation increases student performance by nearly 15 percent of a standard deviation on the PISA math test and the effect of increasing teacher literacy skills on students’ reading performance is slightly smaller, at 10 percent of a standard deviation.

In addition to all these reasons, teachers also experience declining prestige and increased workloads. If all these reasons were not enough for teachers to deal with, they also have to handle accountability reforms mandating tougher licensing rules, evaluations and skill testing – a direct consequence of lower student performance.

In a July 2020 paper, “Teacher Accountability Reforms and the Supply and Quality of New Teachers,” Kraft, Eric Brunner of the University of Connecticut, Shaun M. Dougherty of Boston College and David Schwegman of American University found that accountability reforms reduced the number of newly licensed teacher candidates and increased the likelihood of unfilled teaching positions, particularly in hard-to-staff schools. They also found that evaluation reforms also appear to have reduced teacher satisfaction and autonomy. They conclude that “Counter to most assumptions, our findings document how teacher accountability reduced the supply of new teacher candidates by, in part, decreasing perceived job security, satisfaction and autonomy.”

What We Can Learn From Finland

This outcome is not surprising. Schools’ response to a substantial reduction in student performance is to have teachers go through an accountability reform, employing a series of measures intended to gauge teacher effectiveness. Pasi Sahlberg, in his book “Finish Lessons 3.0,” describes this remedy to the problem as follows: “Competition among schools over enrollment, standardized teaching and learning, and test-based accountability are the most common toxic aspects of today’s school systems globally. These are the wrong means for sustainable improvement, and they are often the main reason why so many teachers leave the profession earlier than planned.”

The Finnish education system is one of the most successful education systems in the world and its teachers are highly accomplished. Teachers in Finland have to possess a graduate degree to teach, their salaries compete with the most prominent professions, such as engineers, lawyers, etc. Teachers are highly respected by society and their work satisfaction is amongst the highest in the world.

What makes Finnish teachers so different than their counterparts in other parts of the world is the understanding that it is not enough to have the best teacher education or to have the brightest teachers in school, but rather ensure that teachers’ work in schools is based on professional dignity, social respect ,and collegiality so that they can fulfill their intention of selecting teaching as a lifetime career. Teachers’ work should strike a balance between classroom teaching and collaboration with other professionals in school, something we don’t see much in American schools.

Finnish teachers are skeptical of using frequent standardized tests to determine students’ progress in school. When asked what their attitude would be if pressured regarding standardized testing and high-stakes accountability, similar to what teachers in the U.S. face, they categorically expressed that they would seek other jobs, where they have freedom to make use of their own creativity and initiative.

Similar to the sentiments of Finnish teachers, teacher accountability reform in the U.S. reduced the supply of new teacher candidates by, in part decreasing perceived job security, satisfaction and autonomy and counter to expectations, no evidence was found that these reforms served to attract teachers who attended the most selective undergraduate institutions.

How to Remedy the Situation

Problems leading to teachers exiting the profession are difficult to solve, but there are some steps that schools can adopt that can improve this picture substantially. Increasing teacher pay and cultural war issues are some of the more complex issues to deal with, but even they can be positively addressed by understanding that the future of our society depends on the quality of future employees. Improving the level of education should be the highest priority of any society in a day and age in which society rewards higher level skills more than any other skills. The allocation of higher budgets for education, especially dedicated towards compensating teachers should be the highest priority of every state.

However, increasing teacher salaries is not a magic bullet for improving education. Many unqualified teachers survive the system due to tenure and others go through their teaching careers without a serious update of their teacher education. One of the biggest scarcities in U.S. schools is time allocated to teachers for improving their skills. A few days of professional development are provided before the beginning or after the end of the year and during the year they are almost non-existent. As mentioned above, Teachers in Finland have free days every week to learn new things, prepare lesson plans and collaborate with other teachers. That is considered as important as teaching.

Cultural wars are difficult to solve because they are a reflection of what is happening in the entire country. These situations can lead to serious disruptions of how schools or districts are run, and in most cases don’t translate to any benefits for students. In fact, they can lead to massive teacher resignations and lower student performance.

It is no surprise that teacher accountability reform is leading teachers to leave the profession. In view of the little time allocated for teachers to prep up their teaching skills and prepare for their daily lessons, their ability to improve students’ skill levels is diminished and therefore faced only with two very bad options: fail or leave.

I believe that teaching is the most important profession in any society because any other profession depends on the quality of students that the school system is able to produce. Therefore, it makes a lot of sense to mandate that teacher training should require a graduate degree, allowing teachers to develop expertise in the latest research in education, just like Finland does. This, of course, is not a solution that can be immediately implemented, but it should be a high priority for the upcoming generation of new teachers.

In the meantime, just by accomplishing the steps that can easily be remedied, such as allocating more time for teachers to prep for their lessons and collaborate with peers, providing teachers with the freedom to manage their own classrooms, canceling standardized teaching and learning and test-based accountability, and increasing teacher’s wages can increase teacher satisfaction, improve teaching practices, increase student performance and transform the public sentiment towards teachers to the respect that their profession’s weight deserves.