Teacher shortages have persisted in the United States for decades despite numerous efforts to address them. In this blog post, the first in the Money Matters: Conversations About Teacher Compensation Series, Sabrina Laine, former Chief Program Officer at WestEd, describes why the first step in solving these shortages should be increasing teacher compensation.

It has long been a challenge to ensure there is a highly qualified, experienced, effective teacher in every single classroom in the United States, despite a range of tested interventions. One reason for this is that the teacher shortage is not a universal, nationwide phenomenon, and the interventions have been as varied as the nature of the shortages. The United States has historically suffered from shortages of teachers in targeted areas, such as math or the hard sciences, special education, and bilingual education. There have also been persistent teacher shortages in particular geographic regions. Why these shortages persist varies depending on the particular shortage area. As a result, many of the solutions to teacher shortages have focused on specific shortage areas. While commonsensical, that approach has also proven problematic because no one solution can address the range of factors causing teacher shortages.

The roots of our current approach to solving “the teacher shortage” are in the 1990s, when education policy conversations began to focus on addressing teacher shortages by elevating the teaching profession—largely spurred on by the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future. Initially, the emphasis was on getting better data to determine where shortages existed and what the causes were. Supplied with accurate information, researchers, education leaders, and policymakers spent many years developing and testing interventions to encourage, train, onboard, mentor, develop, and support teachers throughout their careers. Evaluation and research have revealed that most of those interventions had limited success. They addressed specific issues in very specific contexts (for instance, recruiting teachers in rural areas or increasing the number of STEM teachers) but never proved to be scalable. They were and they are only solving a small and very specific part of the problem.

We need to find a more systemic lever that addresses an issue that all teachers face and build from there to address the more specific reasons for teacher shortages. That’s where compensation comes in.

The United States is at a unique and pivotal moment in the effort to solve what has become a more widespread and larger teacher shortage problem. Teacher satisfaction is now at an all-time low. The intrinsic rewards associated with teaching that have allowed us to attract highly talented people to the profession despite the lack of extrinsic rewards have declined dramatically. For some teachers, those rewards have disappeared altogether. The reasons are clear.

The pandemic took an enormous toll on teachers. Many teachers (if not most) struggled with the transition to delivering instruction online, something they had never done before. In addition to working in ways that were unfamiliar to them, teachers were also trying to support students who were struggling not only with remote learning but with the trauma and feelings of isolation associated with living through a pandemic. In addition, because teaching is a predominantly female profession, in some cases, those same teachers were responsible for guiding their families through the pandemic, wrestling with lack of childcare, overseeing the education of their own children, and serving as primary caregivers to family members.

When schools began to reopen, many teachers did not return, exacerbating teacher shortages where they already existed and creating new shortages in places and fields that hadn’t experienced shortages before.

In cases where qualified teachers did return to the classroom, many began to experience burnout. Already stressed from providing virtual instruction (with all the struggles that involved), teachers were not only responsible for trying to “catch students up” academically but also faced a raft of student behavioral issues. Many students were no longer used to being in the classroom (and some had never been in classrooms), so they struggled with socialization, in many cases coupled with pandemic-related trauma. In addition, soon after the return to school, large numbers of teachers had to teach in environments that lacked nurses, counselors, and teaching assistants, further contributing to teacher burnout.

As if that were not enough, current stressors on teachers have gone well beyond the impact of the pandemic. In several states, teachers now face new laws that restrict what they can teach and how they can teach it. For professionals who have pursued a teaching degree—and in many cases, additional, specialized credentials—that prepares them to make those sorts of judgments, these restrictions on top of the other stresses have been more than enough to drive them out of the profession.

The bright spot in all this is that there is now a growing sense of urgency around addressing teacher shortages and recognition that increasing compensation is a good place to start.

It has become clear that we can’t keep trying to address shortages with a series of small solutions that only address some of the junctures at which teachers leave this career pathway. While teachers need strong preparation, high-quality professional development, and excellent working conditions, we also need to give them a long-overdue solution: increased compensation that puts teachers more on par with other professionals with similar levels of education.

Increasing teacher compensation is one way to make the profession more attractive to individuals who want to teach but don’t believe they can make ends meet on a teacher’s salary. And it can help retain teachers who might still love teaching but who question the financial feasibility of staying in the profession.

Until now, we have not invested enough of our time and resources into addressing the one issue that current and potential teachers identify as a barrier to staying in or entering the profession. It is time that we do so.

This is the first in a series of four blog posts on teacher compensation. These posts address issues raised during a Teacher Compensation Roundtable held in Washington, DC, in November 2022. The event brought together educators, researchers, policy experts, and other leaders to discuss addressing teacher shortages through innovations in teacher compensation. Read all four posts in Money Matters: Conversations About Teacher Compensation Series.