The Teacher Shortage Is Real and about to Get Much Worse. Here's Why

Is standardized testing to blame for increased teacher stress and workforce dropout?

One of the main stressors of teaching is the sheer amount of testing. Students are tested as frequently as twice per month and an average of once per month.

While testing has been around for decades, its increased involvement returned in 2002. As a result of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), teachers are “teaching to test.” These tests were designed to standardize the process and track progress. Schools must make accommodations for children failing to make progress.

There was a slight change to the law under the Obama administration. Passed in December 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) gives greater control to states. However, children are still consistently tested through grades three to eight for literacy and math. According to Harvard professor Daniel Koretz, ESSA does little to relieve the pressure of testing.

The pressure on teachers to obtain high test scores amps up stress further.

Why is testing bad? Well, it's causing teachers stress. And that stress is leading many qualified teachers to leave the profession. Over 40 percent of teachers leave in the first five years. Though not all of this is linked to testing, it is a significant factor.

Testing has become the be-all and end-all for teachers. Their salary and job stability are linked to test scores. This has a drastic impact on the health and well-being of both teachers and students

Teacher Shortage

According to research by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), the teacher shortage could reach 200,000 by 2025, up from 110,000 in 2018. This shortage of workers is due to a number of factors. Among them are pay, working conditions, lack of support, lack of autonomy, and the changing curriculum.

The shortage of teachers will inevitably cause a decline in educational standards.

The shortage is crucially important to educational outcomes. Class sizes are rising, causing a detrimental effect on these outcomes. As the number of available teachers declines, class sizes have to increase to compensate. Having more kids in a class can also affect teacher performance—more books to mark, more children to monitor, more children's behavior that needs managing. The pressure on teachers to obtain high test scores amps up stress further. It creates a vicious cycle, and it is starting to snowball. The shortage is only set to increase unless something changes.

Impact on Quality

The shortage of teachers will inevitably cause a decline in educational standards. Principals face a shortage of highly qualified teachers. The natural response for them is to hire less qualified teachers, hire teachers trained in another field or grade, or make use of unqualified substitute teachers. This means students are being taught by teachers who lack sufficient skills and knowledge.

According to the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future:

Studies discover again and again that teacher expertise is one of the most important factors in determining student achievement, followed by the smaller but generally positive influences of small schools and small class sizes. That is, teachers who know a lot about teaching and learning who work in environments that allow them to know students well are the critical elements of successful learning.

Teachers matter more to student achievement than any other factor. In fact, research by Chlotfelter, Ladd, & Vigdor states that teacher qualifications predict more of the difference in educational gains than race and parent education combined.

Narrowing the Teacher Shortage

Highly qualified teachers are crucial to educational outcomes. The issue is with the fact that many are leaving the profession. Roughly 8 percent leave every year, with the vast majority leaving pre-retirement. That's over double that of Finland, Canada, and Singapore (as low as 3 to 4 percent). 

While [teachers] are being told to differentiate and tailor to each specific child, they must also stick to a scripted curriculum.

With 3.6 million teachers in employment, roughly 288,000 leave each year. If the US had a similar attrition rate to Finland, only 108,000 teachers would leave each year. That would mean an additional 180,000 teachers for schools to choose from.

By shrinking the turnover rate, we would have greater competition among teachers. Schools could be more selective about who to employ, more highly qualified teachers would be available, and educational outcomes would improve. Further, it would save $2.2 billion annually. That's easily said, but how can it be done?

Greater Freedom

According to Dr. Richard Ingersoll of the University of Pennsylvania, teacher turnover is mostly driven by dissatisfaction. Ingersoll says this dissatisfaction is a result of a lack of freedom. Teachers are micromanaged. While they are being told to differentiate and tailor to each specific child, they must also stick to a scripted curriculum. At the same time, they have no say in school-wide decisions.

Research finds that teacher autonomy is positively associated with teachers' job satisfaction and teacher retention. Teachers who perceive that they have less autonomy are more likely to leave their positions, either by moving from one school to another or leaving the profession altogether.

The lack of autonomy can be traced back to the standardization of the educational system.

Teachers are required to stick to scripted programs. This is so they can teach to standardized tests. Rather than being able to learn and understand, students often rely on rote memory. So while test scores may improve, the information does not stick. Consequently, teachers’ creativity is stifled, but students don't benefit.

Furthermore, teachers are rarely consulted about administrative changes, perhaps because they are among the lowest in the educational hierarchy after teaching assistants. Nevertheless, it is because of this fact that so many teachers feel disengaged and powerless.

There is also the case of control within the classroom. In general, US teachers report little control over two areas: "selecting textbooks and other classroom materials" and “selecting content, topics, and skills to be taught."

The lack of autonomy can be traced back to the standardization of the educational system. The current trend toward standardized learning—scripted curricula and prescribed classroom-management routines—is shackling educators around the country and discouraging talented individuals from joining the field.

What Should Be Done?

It is apparent that there is excessive control over teachers. Why hire someone just so you can tell them what to do? We have robots for that. Teachers are living and thinking beings. They can add value and create meaningful learning environments suited to their class. The path to standardization has to stop, and Finland shows us the benefits of taking a different route. In order to improve the quality of teachers, we must first empower the ones we already have.

In Finland, teachers are both highly qualified and have a high level of autonomy. There are no standardized tests, no strict curriculums, and no general inspections. The curriculum is deliberately broad, focusing on individual improvement rather than collective assessment.

The Finnish system works around the children rather than the other way around. By tailoring lessons to the interests of the class, results follow. Students are more engaged and therefore take more in.

At the same time, this requires a well-educated workforce. However, you cannot create one if potential teachers don't want to join the profession. By creating a stressed and anxious workforce, others are inevitably unwilling to follow.

It must be said that pay is also a contributing factor, and while higher pay will also help, empowering teachers will have the most beneficial results. Therefore, in order to improve the quality of teachers, we must first empower the ones we already have. Only then will others not only follow but also remain within the profession.

Further Reading

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