There's been a U.S. teacher shortage problem for 50 years. Why?

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The teacher shortage problem has been going on for 50 years. Why are so few entering the profession?

On World Teachers’ Day, Grid takes a look at the numbers behind one of America’s biggest education challenges: finding professionals to run the classroom.

The American education system has long struggled to recruit teachers, who often take pay cuts compared with their fellow college graduates. But the shortage has never been more severe than it is now, even as states loosen the requirements.

Fewer people have been earning degrees in education for decades

Over the last 50 years, a lower percentage of students earned bachelor’s degrees in education, even “as the overall number and share of Americans with a college degree have increased,” according to a recent Pew Research Center report.

During the 1970-1971 school year, 21 percent of all bachelor’s degrees conferred were in education, according to National Center for Education Statistics data. By the 2019-2020 school year, that figure had dropped to just 4 percent.

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Not only are fewer people studying education, but the number of people earning degrees and certificates in “high-need specialties” — such as special education, science and mathematics education, and foreign language education — are especially scarce, according to a recent American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education report.

Teacher-education programs — supplemental educational tools that can offer further certification beyond or instead of a degree — also aren’t as popular. Over a 10-year period beginning in 2008, the number of people completing these programs decreased by a third, Education Week reported earlier this year.

The biggest barrier to people entering the profession: Teaching isn’t lucrative

Fewer than 1 in 5 Americans said they would encourage a young person to become a K-12 teacher, according to a recent poll from NORC at the University of Chicago. Respondents who were white and wealthier were less likely to recommend the profession.

Why? Low pay, lack of resources and a stressful work environment are just a couple of the reasons given. When it comes to pay, 69 percent of survey respondents said they thought it was a major consideration when deciding whether or not to become a teacher.

Average weekly wages for public schoolteachers have been stagnant for years, according to Economic Policy Institute analysis from this summer.

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In 1979, teachers earned $1,052 per week, when adjusted for inflation. That’s 22.9 percent less than what other college graduates earned. Beginning in 2010, the gap widened significantly: Teacher wages remained flat while wages for other college grads rose. The result? A 32.9 percent gap by 2021.

And it’s only gotten worse. Since the 1990s, what’s called the teacher pay penalty has been on a worsening trajectory, the Economic Policy Institute wrote. The penalty shows how much less teachers earn compared to those with college degrees. If, in comparison, teachers are earning more, it’s called the teacher pay premium.

By 2021, the pay penalty hit historic levels.

In the mid-1990s, women who were teachers saw a relative wage premium, where their salaries were on par with those of other college-educated women.

Male teachers, though, have always faced a pay penalty compared with their nonteaching counterparts. “The large wage penalty that men face in the teaching profession goes a long way toward explaining why the gender makeup of the profession has not changed much over the past few decades,” the EPI wrote.

Teachers often receive a larger share of their compensation as benefits, compared with other professions. But even when accounting for benefits, teachers still see a 14.2 percent penalty.

How are school districts repairing the pipeline?

School districts are trying all kinds of strategies to reduce barriers to entering the profession and build a pipeline of qualified teachers. Some colleges are offering scholarships to students who pursue education in critical areas, Education Week reported.

Other programs, like the one at Utah State University, are allowing teachers and paraprofessionals with emergency licenses to continue working in schools while they work toward their teaching licenses.

Some states, like Arizona and Florida, have relaxed requirements, the Washington Post reported, by allowing high school graduates to become teachers or by putting community college graduates and military veterans in classrooms with mentors.

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Anna Deen
    Anna Deen

    Data Visualization Reporter

    Anna Deen is a data visualization reporter at Grid.