Maine Schools in Focus: Great Schools Need Great Teachers—What Can We Do About Shortages?
Editor: Gordon Donaldson
Over the past several years, Maine school districts have reported difficulties recruiting qualified teachers. In part, this is a result of baby boomer retirements. But some teachers are leaving Maine schools because the grass is greener in other parts of the state, out of state, or in entirely different lines of work.
Maine’s teacher shortages for the current year, reported by the U.S. Department of Education, include math, science, special education, world languages, English as a Second Language, gifted and talented, industrial arts, and school librarians (U.S. DOE, 2016). Many of these same teaching areas have seen shortages for at least the past decade. How can our schools meet the learning proficiency goals of our children if they cannot recruit fully qualified teachers? How can they satisfy their legal obligations for individualized education plans without skilled specialists?
This challenge is not unique to Maine. It is shared by virtually every other state and is, in fact, more serious in urban systems and in high-poverty regions. At first blush, it’s common to blame high turnover and low teacher supply on low pay. In Maine, as in the nation, average teacher salaries (adjusted for inflation) have essentially remained flat since 1970 (NCES, 2013). In 2013, Maine’s average teacher salary ranked 35th in the country; our median household income ranked 32nd. When compared to our New England neighbors, Maine’s salaries, on average, likely encourage some teachers and some aspiring teachers to seek jobs out of state; Massachusetts and New Hampshire salaries have grown faster than most states’ while Maine’s have stagnated; Connecticut and Massachusetts average salaries were $11,000 and $15,000 higher than Maine’s in 2013.
Pay, however, is only one of the major factors at play when individuals decide to go into teaching or to stay in teaching. A 2016 study by the Learning Policy Institute (learningpolicyinstitute.org) finds that teacher shortages nationwide are a result of an 8 percent annual attrition rate in the teaching force. (By comparison, high-performing jurisdictions like Finland and Ontario see 3 to 4 percent annual attrition). In addition, fewer people are enrolling in teacher prep programs. And attrition is greatest within the first five years of teaching. With enrollments expected to increase in the next decade, the future outlook for a more robust teaching force is even more of a concern.
The authors of the study, Sutcher, Darling-Hammond, and Carver-Thomas, argue that we should look hard at conditions that are eroding teachers’ energy and commitment to the profession. Attrition, they say, is extremely costly: it wreaks havoc with continuity of instruction and curriculum and essentially wastes the resources a school invests in teachers it hires. In their study of teacher satisfaction and of “leavers” from schools and the profession, they report that “administrative support is the factor most consistently associated with teachers’ decisions to stay in or leave a school” (2016, p.4). Opportunities for professional development, for collaborative work, for collegial relationships, and for input on decisions also figure prominently in the conditions shaping teacher departures.
Where does Maine stand in this picture? The Learning Policy Institute rates the states on “Teaching Attractiveness,” a measure of how on average conditions in the state’s schools stand up against factors that shape staying in or leaving the profession. These include compensation, working conditions such as pupil-teacher ratios and administrative support, teacher equity, teacher qualifications (certification and experience), and turnover rate. Maine’s Teacher Attractiveness rating is in the highest or “most attractive” quintile, placing us ahead of at least 40 other states. One reason for our high ranking is that we have a more experienced teaching force and lower teacher attrition than the country. We have, however, a larger number of teachers who have plans to leave the profession.
What does this tell us? It reminds us, first, that “it’s not all about pay.” Teachers’ compensation packages remain a vital concern; salaries in Maine no longer offer the same ticket to the middle class that they did for most of the 20th century. But beyond pay, the conditions in which our teachers work have immense influence over whether they stay at a school, in the profession, and remain fully committed to their work. These are conditions that school leaders, district leaders, school boards, and state leadership can together shape for the better. The state’s current blue ribbon commission on education funding should make this a priority.
Maine rated higher in Teacher Attractiveness than the national average on favorable pupil-teacher ratios, on classroom autonomy, and on freedom from “test-related anxiety.” We scored at the national average on collegiality and administrative support. These admittedly general findings suggest that leaders can make significant inroads into the “attrition” side of the teacher shortage equation. They can design ongoing systems to support teachers new to the profession and to recruit and support talented math, science, world language, and special education teachers. Saddled with implementing the state’s new teacher evaluation system this year, leaders are finding this unusually challenging.
The lion’s share of public school funding is for personnel. Energetic, break-the-mold leadership at the state and university levels will be essential if our kids are to benefit from that investment. Maine clearly remains a good if not great place to teach. A concerted recruiting strategy for talent from inside Maine and out is absolutely essential. Funding and supporting teacher preparation programs to bring those with the skill sets, academic training, and dedication into our schools is vital. And ensuring that teaching jobs in high-needs areas, whether rural or urban, are remunerated and supported at the same rate as in other districts across Maine is critical to the overall performance of our education system. Our future economic viability depends on it.
Sources: National Center for Educational Statistics (nces.ed.gov); Sutcher, L, L. Darling-Hammond, D. Carver-Thomas (2016). A coming crisis in teaching? Teacher supply, demand, and shortages in the U.S. (learningpolicyinstitute.org); U.S. DOE (2016). Teacher shortage areas: Nationwide listing 1990-91—2016-17. (www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ope/pol/tsa.html).
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Contact: Gordon Donaldson at email@example.com.