Here's How We Turn Our Teacher Crisis Into an Education Moonshot

Feb 15, 2022 12:00:00 AM


It is no secret that education in America finds itself in a moment of dire reckoning.

According to the NEA, more than half of teachers anticipate leaving the profession earlier than they had intended—more than 80% having seen colleagues leave the profession, leaving those behind stretched thin as they cover multiple classrooms. 

This is a nationwide phenomenon. Indeed, the Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that [pullquote]America has lost more than 500,000 teachers since the beginning of the pandemic[/pullquote] and teacher vacancies remain unfilled.

But, what if instead of a crisis, we look at this moment as an opportunity?

This could be a moon-shot moment for how America recruits, prepares and pays its teachers.  Here are two things America can do to turn this crisis into a potential new beginning.

Universal Teacher Residency Programs

For far too many teachers, particularly those in under-resourced districts, schools provide new hires with insufficient on-ramping. Many teachers, myself included, pass a few tests, get a certification that allows them to teach while taking classes at night, and are thrown into a classroom. This system sets up teachers, schools, and most importantly, students and families for a lower-quality educational experience and greatly reduces the chances of a new teacher experiencing success, thereby increasing the likelihood of teachers ending their careers early.

[pullquote]We can no longer throw under-prepared teachers into classrooms and expect them to be effective and stay.[/pullquote] What America needs is a universal drive towards teacher residencies. Here’s how most teacher residencies work: 

  • Teacher residents are placed in a school with a mentor teacher for an academic year. They are there every single day. While receiving intense instruction from the preparatory program, residents immerse themselves in the day-to-day rigors in their placement.
  • During that full year, teacher residents will engage in a gradual on-ramp, beginning the school year observing their mentor teacher and slowly taking on more teaching responsibility. The gradual on-ramp, while not standardized, empowers teachers to progress from teaching mini lessons to leading one or two sections to leading a full class load with oversight and continuous feedback from an on-site professional. 

When compared to traditional student-teaching programs, in which prospective teachers engage in roughly four hundred hours of preservice teaching, residency programs have teachers tally upwards of nine hundred hours of teaching. 

No doctor, nurse, firefighter, cop, plumber, auto-mechanic—indeed almost no professional—are left to their own devices their first day on the job. If we want our teachers to be effective, and to stay, we need residencies for all now.

Incentivize Becoming a Teacher

Teachers are not saints, nor are they selfless saviors of America’s children. They are people with families, debts, and bills. [pullquote position="right"]If America wants a steady, reliable stream of strong, bright, and capable teachers, then America needs to make teaching worth it[/pullquote]—and yes, teaching is inspirational and life changing, no doubt about it, but those things don’t pay bills.

Get this. Imagine a family of four in South Dakota or Mississippi with one source of income. Imagine that source of income is a teacher’s average salary. That family now qualifies for federally reduced-price meals for its students. That tells you all you need to know about how America values teaching as a profession.

Why in the world would someone go to college, accrue a national average of more than $30,000 in debt, then join a low-paying profession that is extremely difficult with woefully inadequate preparation? And we ask ourselves where are all the teachers? 

To attract and retain teachers, the universal base pay for all teachers must be $60,000, their student loans forgiven, and teacher residency programs guaranteed. With this type of investment, teachers can then be held to appropriately high standards to ensure their students are benefiting from such an investment in their teachers. 

And, at the risk of being pithy, lest anybody question how we pay for all of this, consider the costs of the following:

Regardless of how where the money comes from, there is one thing we know for certain—the status quo is not sustainable. But what if we tried something new—seeing education as an investment to maximize rather than an expenditure to cut?

Zachary Wright 

Zachary Wright is an assistant professor of practice at Relay Graduate School of Education, serving Philadelphia and Camden, and a communications activist at Education Post. Prior, he was the twelfth-grade world literature and Advanced Placement literature teacher at Mastery Charter School's Shoemaker Campus, where he taught students for eight years—including the school's first eight graduating classes. Wright was a national finalist for the 2018 U.S. Department of Education's School Ambassador Fellowship, and he was named Philadelphia's Outstanding Teacher of the Year in 2013. During his more than 10 years in Philadelphia classrooms, Wright created a relationship between Philadelphia's Mastery Schools and the University of Vermont that led to the granting of near-full-ride college scholarships for underrepresented students. And he participated in the fight for equitable education funding by testifying before Philadelphia's Board of Education and in the Pennsylvania State Capitol rotunda. Wright has been recruited by Facebook and Edutopia to speak on digital education. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, he organized demonstrations to close the digital divide. His writing has been published by The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Philadelphia Citizen, Chalkbeat, Education Leadership, and numerous education blogs. Wright lives in Collingswood, New Jersey, with his wife and two sons. Read more about Wright's work and pick up a copy of his new book, " Dismantling A Broken System; Actions to Close the Equity, Justice, and Opportunity Gaps in American Education"—now available for pre-order!

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