Here’s a new content format where I’m examining a problem in education and sharing my thoughts about companies who are addressing the problem. These thoughts come from my personal experience of teaching for a decade, publicly available data, and insights from guests on The EdTech Startup Show.
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Table of contents
It’s estimated that there are over 74 million children in the United States. All of them need to learn.
The US offers a public school education to every kid, free at the point of delivery.
Who provides this service?
But right now, America’s teacher workforce is struggling.
To start, you can look at the numbers: There are about 4 million teachers in the United States. Below, we’ll see how this is not enough for America’s educational needs.
At the same time, teachers are leaving the profession. Experienced teachers I’ve spoken to report that their responsibilities and expectations are higher than ever, pushing stress levels through the roof. They take early retirements.
At the other end of the spectrum, there’s also a leaky bucket. Forty-four percent of new teachers leave the profession within the first five years.
What else is there to know about this situation? And what’s being done about it?
Below, I’ll dive into the issue. Keep in mind, my perspective is that of a teacher who has thought a lot about EdTech’s capacity to solve problems. There are non-tech solutions, but I’ll leave that analysis to others.
Here we go…
The teacher workforce problem is about finding, training, and keeping teachers
John Hattie’s work reveals that teacher effectiveness does have an exceptional impact on student learning. To have a corps of qualified effective teachers, school districts need to finding, train, and retain the best people possible.
Here’s how it breaks down:
Hiring new teachers
Every year, teachers retire, switch careers or don’t come back for personal reasons. When this happens, schools need to hire new teachers.
Often, schools look to hire recent graduates. Because of union-negotiated contracts, hiring younger, less experienced teachers is almost always cheaper for schools.
This is good because teachers fresh out of college have recent training on best practices based and the latest research.
However, teaching requires experience to get good. Newer teachers don’t have as much experience, so they place additional resource requirements on schools who hire them.
Hiring substitute teachers
Teachers get sick. They go to the doctor or care for kids at home. (Shhhh….They sometimes even take a day off for themselves, or so I’ve heard…)
When this happens, most schools rely on bringing in outside teachers to cover the teacher’s classes for the day. This is known as a substitute teacher.
In the past, substitute teachers were local community members. The district would call them and ask them to come fill in for the day. This system has its benefits, as teachers, students, school leaders and even parents could get to know these community-based substitute teachers. They’d come back to the same school over and over again.
For example, I remember a substitute teacher who taught my Spanish class throughout high school – Mr. Leonard. He became a legend for our high school class, formed strong relationships with students, and made sure I never forget how to properly conjugate the verb gustar.
As with many community-based solutions in education, there are inefficiencies and challenges, too.
In the case of substitute teaching, the challenge is simple: it’s hard to fill the need for substitute teachers. Finding qualified substitute teachers who can help to continue the learning in an in-person environment is another aspect of this challenge.
Teaching is a complex job, requiring content knowledge and pedagogical skills.
In college, teachers receive classroom instruction about various topics in education. At the same time, they move through a process of observing classroom teachers, teaching individual lessons or short units, and finally completing student teaching.
In many states, students teaching means college students in their last one or two semesters teach a full teacher’s schedule for one semester of the year.
Then, it’s graduation and on to the workforce.
After teachers get a job, they move through a probationary period. New teachers pair with mentor teachers for a formalized training program. These new teachers often have additional professional development responsibilities and meetings with other new teachers. States and districts tackle this in their own way.
Almost universally, though, new teachers – from day ONE – share the same responsibilities and expectations as twenty-year veterans.
If anything, because of tenure policies, newer teachers have much more responsibility and pressure on them than veteran teachers because they often feel a constant pressure or fear to justify the quality of work they are doing, and therefore keep their jobs.
In order to move beyond the anecdotal and towards the analytical, let’s take a look at some data around these issues
What do the numbers say when it comes to teacher hiring?
Pay for teachers is low and expectations are high
Examining these numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), a few things jump out.
The value for “on the job training” is “none.” On the BLS website, the description of “on the job training” is “Additional training needed (post-employment) to attain competency in the skills needed in this occupation.”
It’s fascinating that a government agency responsible for reporting on working trends reports that teachers need NO additional training after college in order to “attain competency.”
As I mentioned above, this is practically true when it comes to the experience of new teachers. They are expected to do the job 💯 💯 💯 from day one.
If you apply this standard to any other complicated, important profession, say a physical or mental health profession, you can see why new teachers often leave fast.
The median pay is $61,660.
Here, some may note that teaching only requires a bachelor’s degree in many states, and that those with bachelor’s degree earn an average of 50K, according to ZipRecruiter.
However, remember that median is the “middle number,” meaning half of teachers earn less than 61k and half earn more. Also, consider that the half earning more has often pursued advance degrees.
I’m not a data expert, but I find it fascinating how this info seems to support some reasons why teachers are leaving the profession: low pay and inadequate training.
The supply and demand lines for teacher hiring have crossed
Within the last decade, the supply and demand situation for teacher hiring has changed fast.
Notice that the lines cross around 2012. The crossing of the lines means that the demand for new hires has exceeded the supply for new hires.
One theory I have is that kids entering college is 2008, during The Great Recession, did not look at teaching as a viable way to earn a high wage and therefore fewer college students pursued education degrees.
On the other hand, teaching is a more stable job than many fields, so there’s an argument to be made that people would be prone to pursuing a job like that during times of economic uncertainty.
What are the causes of the teacher shortage?
From my perspective, it seems that the teacher shortage is caused by a mixture of these factors:
The narrative that teaching is a worse job than it used to be.
What are the dominant narratives in the media about teaching?
Here are some that come to mind…teachers take on extra jobs to pay off debt, state governments come after teachers unions in to make teachers pay more for benefits or cut salaries, bureaucrats seek to increase standardized testing, teachers risk physical safety because of school shootings and now COVID-19.
Am I wrong? Or are these the big picture narratives that dominate the mind of the public when it comes to teaching?
Teachers burning out because of additional responsibilities.
As I mentioned above, I’ve heard from teachers near retirement how “things were different” earlier in their career.
Some of this is nostalgia, but some of it is true. Policy makers push to make teachers more accountable for students’ test scores. School leaders and parents demand teachers to be connected 24/7 because of digital communication tools. New evaluation systems require more paperwork and data reporting than ever.
Inadequate support for new teachers.
Many teachers get paired with kind, helpful, experienced mentor teachers. But this is not enough.
New teachers are given 100% responsibility on day one. This system sets new teachers up for failure and burnout.
Instead, new teachers need a gradual release system. This would involve ongoing learning, apprenticeship, observation, practice, and reflection.
As of now, new teachers must learn from their own failures, with no process or people designated to help them.
There are so many opportunities to make this better
Help schools find better candidates
Schools need to learn how to identify the teachers that will be a good fit for their district, so more teachers stick around.
Help universities better prepare teachers
If education moves closer to a medical residency model, where new teachers do not have the full responsibilities of a teacher, but continue learning from experienced teachers, they can be more adequately prepared for the challenges of the job and then be more likely to stay in the job.
Help teachers find better roles
Programs that help teachers evaluate the available roles, types of schools they can work in, and career paths can all help more people stay in education in general and teaching in particular.
Help make the job more sustainable
Re-imaging work schedules, helping teachers manage child care, making sure they’re paid enough, helping them take on leadership roles in their school or district. These are just a few ways that the job of teacher can become more sustainable for people to stick around in.
What EdTech innovations can help address this problem?
I’m fascinated by technology because of it’s power to create elegant solutions. In public education, where things move slow and avoid innovation, the speed and flexibility of EdTech startups have always been a breath of fresh air for me.
Here are a handful of companies that I think can positively impact the challenges around teacher hiring and retention:
Swing Education – (my interview with CEO Mike Teng)
Swing is helping to solve the problem of unfilled substitute teaching spots. The company offers a marketplace where districts can subs in their area.
Swing has also launched their Tutors product, which could help schools support teachers and students in hybrid or remote learning set-ups by providing on demand teaching assistance.
While not directly working on the solution of teacher hiring, Paper plays a role in supporting schools’ instructional needs. One cause of teacher burnout is the workload: Too many students, too many different sections or subjects, too little time for prep, grading, and their other responsibilities.
Paper helps to alleviate this by providing on-demand instructional support for students. I.e. when a students needs help, they log on and chat with a Paper teacher.
Notice how this could alleviate off-hours responsibilities that teachers have. Then, classroom teachers have more energy for in-person or synchronous learning time.
Hire Nimble – (my interview with CEO Lauren Dachille)
Lauren Dachille and her team at Nimble are working on helping districts make better hiring decisions. They use predictive technology to increase the likelihood that a teacher will be a good fit for a school district. This is good for everyone.
When teachers stay, students get more instructional continuity throughout a school year and their school career. Colleagues can develop synergy and rapport with fellow teachers. Districts save time and money by reducing the resources devoted to the hiring process.
Video Observation Platforms: Edthena, Torsh & Insight Advance
One challenge of supporting teachers is finding time to give them adequate feedback. At least three companies I know of are all supporting schools, districts, and teacher prep programs by leveraging the power of video in order to get teachers feedback on their instruction sooner and more often.
Though some teachers at first feel a little skittish about the idea of video taping their classroom, the right approach can ease teachers’ anxieties about the process, and unlock a new approach to professional growth that also reduces some of the stresses and inconveniences of in-person observations.
Related to the three video observation platforms mentioned above, Swivl is a hardware solution helping to improve teacher training and professional development.
By providing teachers with a dynamic way to record themselves teaching, educators can easily capture and share video of themselves teaching whole-class lessons, leading small group instruction, facilitating discussions, and more.
Solving this problem is essential for America
As I’ll write about in a future Insights Edition, teachers are finding lots of other options for how they can share their passion and fulfill their goal of helping others. None of these new options I’m talking about involve working in a traditional classroom.
This means that schools need teachers more than teachers need schools. And for the large number of families in America who can’t afford to pay for a private education for their children, the American education system needs to figure out how to train, hire, and retain teachers in an effective, sustainable way.
Some other lingering question I have about this topic:
- Is the current situation with teachers sustainable?
- How will COVID-19 affect the population of teachers long term?
- Where is the value-add of teacher prep programs or public school systems for teachers, if the job keeps getting worse and the opportunities elsewhere keep getting better?
- Salaries need to go up, autonomy needs to go up, work loads need to be better managed, and what other solutions need to be addressed?
There are plenty more questions to ask and answer, and I’ll update this post as they come up.
Send me your feedback on Twitter @GerardDawson3 or via email gerard [at] gerarddawson[dot]com