Why is teaching becoming a less appealing occupation? One answer is right in front of us

Proof that teaching is increasingly becoming a profession under siege is mounting.

Many of us have relatives or friends who were dismissed from their schools during the recession or kept their jobs but faced cuts in school funding and other challenges affecting their work lives. News reports are replete with stories of teachers who quit or who are thinking about quitting. And the most recent PDK poll of American’s views of public education found that more than half of the parents surveyed said they do not want their children to become public school teachers—the largest share since the question was introduced in 1969 and the first time a majority of parents answered this way.

The U.S Department of Education closes the school year with the publication of the Teacher Shortage Areas. Researchers point to a lack of available individuals to fill teaching positions as a factor in the teacher shortage, which we explore in a series of reports being released this spring and summer. The shortage is estimated to exceed 110,000 teachers missing in the current school year, according to our colleagues at the Learning Policy Institute.

Why is the role of educating our children becoming so unpopular?

The explanations people would provide for the declining popularity of teaching are many and may vary depending on the respondent and her or his connection to the profession. Still, it is pretty likely that low teacher pay would be a common response, either as a single cause or as an important feature in a constellation of causes that includes disrespect from policymakers, underfunding (which leaves teachers without the supports to handle their day-to-day needs), and disinvestment in the professional supports that help teachers adapt to changing conditions, continue their professional education, and collaborate with one another—key elements of any professional occupation. It’s likely that explanations from teachers themselves would emphasize both the lack of professional supports that reflect a lack of appreciation for teaching as a professional like any other profession and the pay penalty they live with.

Teacher complaints about low pay are backed by the evidence. The teacher weekly wage penalty—how much less teachers make than comparable college-educated workers—is both very large (21.4 percent in 2018) and has grown nonstop since our colleagues Sylvia Allegretto and Larry Mishel have been tracking the penalty. In our new report Low Relative Pay and High Incidence of Moonlighting Play a Role in the Teacher Shortage, Particularly in High-poverty Schools we find that more than half of the teachers (59.0 percent) moonlight—performing extra work for pay inside or outside of the school system to supplement their salaries. That share, which uses data from the 2015–2016 school year, is up from 55.6 percent in the 2011–2012 school year.

Moonlighting brings in extra pay— about $4,100, or 7 percent of a teacher’s combined salary and moonlighting pay— but at the cost of reduced family and personal time. And low pay is more acute in high-poverty schools. Teachers in high-poverty schools earn $5,600 less, bring in $300 less in moonlighting income, and are less likely to get their moonlighting income from activities that include a career-building component such as coaching, student activity sponsorships, mentoring other teachers, or teaching evening classes.

So how do we address these pay issues in teaching?

First we must understand why teachers are underpaid. Among the possible reasons is the fact that teaching was historically a ‟pink-collar” profession, i.e., one occupied by women, and it is likely that the teacher pay penalty is partly due to a gender pay gap that persists. Also, teachers’ salaries are not set in perfectly competitive markets, which may explain why wages do not reflect teachers’ real value or reward the investments in education that people make to become a teacher. Likely, the systems in place to fund education and teacher salaries are inadequate, insufficient, and outdated.

Second we must find the policy, social, and political will to implement the necessary fixes. As a society, it’s clearly not a smart strategy to underinvest in those who have the responsibility of educating our children and thus nurturing our human and social capital. What would be smart would be to recognize the role of teachers in building human and social capital and understand that we can’t advance the quality of education provided to our young people if we don’t support the teachers in charge of the task. Higher salaries for teachers is a policy intervention that has the support of academics, and the general public—a record high two-thirds of Americans say teachers are underpaid. And of course pay increases respond to the call by teachers who have walked out for higher pay and other education investments. Rightfully, politicians are putting teachers’ matters at the front end of their agendas.

In today’s report, we examine low pay and the need to moonlight as contributors to the teacher shortage problem, because they make attracting and retaining teachers in the schools difficult. But beyond the specific findings is the moral implication of our analysis: that whatever the structural, historical, political, or societal causes behind the pay penalty in education, the penalty, at its heart, is just fundamentally unfair and requires a fix that is commensurate with its unfairness.