Public School Teaching: A Profession at Risk

Frank Islam & Ed Crego
11 min readJun 4, 2024
Image Credits: Tom de Boor, Adobe, Dreamstime, et al

The school year is over. School is out. The students are gone. The teachers have left.

Sadly, many of those teachers have left permanently and will never return. For a variety of reasons. in 2024, public school teaching is a profession at risk.

What Teachers are Thinking and Feeling

The primary reasons for that risk, however, are the thoughts and feelings of teachers themselves. A Pew Research Center (Pew) report, released on April 4, states that “Public K-12 teachers are stressed about their jobs and few are optimistic about the future of education…”

The Pew report, based upon a national survey of 2,531 U.S. public school teachers, revealed that of those teachers “who don’t plan to retire or stop working this year, 29% say they will look for a new job in the 2023–2024 school year.”

40% of those respondents said they would look for a job outside of education; 29% said they would look for a non-teaching job in education; and only 18% would look for a teaching job at another public school.

A central factor contributing to these potential departures or migration from the teaching field is how teachers feel about their jobs. The Pew research found that

  • 77% said their job is frequently stressful
  • 68% say their job is overwhelming
  • 70% said their school is understaffed
  • 52% said they would not advise a young person starting out to become a teacher

These feelings are driven by the following factors identified through the research:

  • Student problems, including poverty, chronic absenteeism, anxiety and depression.
  • Challenges in the classroom, including students showing little or no interest in learning, students distracted by their cellphones, and troublesome student behavior.
  • Parents involvement as insufficient in dealing with children’s misbehavior in school, helping their children with homework, and ensuring school attendance.

The Pew survey found that: “A large majority of teachers (82%) say the overall state of public K-12 education has gotten worse in the past five years.” And five years from now, “A narrow majority (53%) say it will be worse.”

Pew states that “Among teachers who think things have gotten worse in recent years, majorities say the current political climate (60%) and the lasting effects of the COVID-19 pandemic (57%) are major reasons.”

Teachers are not only feeling distressed. They are also feeling disrespected. That insight comes from a working paper published in November 2022 by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University.

According to Jessica Grose of the New York Times, that paper, written by Matthew Kraft of Brown and Melissa Arnold Lyon of the University of Albany, “painted a dire picture of the profession: Perceptions of teacher prestige have fallen between 20 and 47 percent in the last decade to be at or near the lowest levels recorded over the last half century.”

Here is another part of that “dire picture,” as reported by Grose, “Teachers’ job satisfaction is also at the lowest level in five decades, with the percent of teachers who feel the stress of their job is worth it dropping from 81 percent to 42 percent in the last fifteen years.”

That job satisfaction finding from the Brown University research correlates with a finding on job satisfaction from the Pew Research. Pew found that only 33% of all teachers were “extremely or very satisfied” with their jobs, compared to 51% of all U.S. workers.

Together, the Pew and Brown studies paint an extremely dire picture and explain why many teachers do not want to be part of that picture going forward, as well as the disappearance of many teachers from classrooms over the past several years.

The Flight from Classrooms

We have been writing about teachers’ flight from the classroom and the consequent teaching shortage since 2022. Our most recent post on the subject was in September 2023. At that time, we wrote:

Unfortunately, there is no good national database on teacher shortages, and the data available on a state-by-state basis varies considerably in quality and timeliness.

The best national data we found was in an update of a research study (done for the Annenberg Institute at Brown University) conducted by three academics released on August 23 of this year.

The original study, released in August of 2022, revealed that “ …there are at least 36,000 vacant positions along with at least 163,000 positions being held by underqualified teachers.”

This update, using more up-to-date and comprehensive data, estimates that “…there are at least 55,000 vacant positions and 270,000 underqualified positions…” The study’s authors note these estimates are conservative because they cover only 43 states for varying time periods, with only one state reporting results for the 2023–2024 school year.

That “conservative estimate” means that nearly 1 in 10 teacher jobs are either unfilled or held by underqualified teachers.

Various studies have shown that the teacher shortage varies significantly from state to state. A new study, released in March of this year by Scholaroo, highlighted the extent of that variability in terms of the teacher student ratio.

According to Newsweek, the Scholaroo study shows that the state with the best teacher student ratio was Vermont, with 97.6 teachers per 1,000 students. Nevada had the worst ratio with 43.65 teachers per 1,000.

The five states with the worst ratio were: Nevada, Utah, Arizona, California, and Florida. The five states with the best ratio were: Vermont, New Hampshire, North Dakota, New York, and Missouri.

This variability extends beyond the teacher student ratio by state; it also occurs within states. As we noted in our 2023 piece:

  • Certain “kinds” of teachers are hardest to find — among those are special education, science and math teachers.
  • High poverty and high minority school districts are often hardest hit by shortages.

The Pew Research report released in April of this year had similar findings regarding schools. It showed:

  • Teachers in high poverty schools had a much more negative outlook.
  • Teachers in high poverty schools are more likely than those in medium and low poverty schools to say they deal with behavioral issues every day.

The Scholaroo study confirmed that almost every state had a shortage of special education teachers, and many were short math teachers and science teachers as well.

Band-Aid Fixes to the Teacher Pipeline

These shortages have necessitated short-term or what might be called “band-aid” fixes — none of which ensure a high quality or good learning experience for students. Those fixes include: schools and districts increasing class sizes, canceling courses, adding more responsibilities to the workload of current teachers — and, as discussed earlier, the data shows that many schools in states across this nation have had to fill the vacant positions with “underqualified” instructors.

In August of 2023, as the 2023–2024 school year was starting, Moriah Balingit of the Washington Post published an insightful article on what schools have done, and were doing, to cope with the teacher shortage. Following are some of the “coping” approaches that Balingit details in her piece:

  • A principal of a school in rural Maine filled 80% of his open positions with “long-term substitute teachers, after he was unable to find qualified educators. Long term subs don’t need teacher training or a college degree. Many of his new hires lack both.”
  • The Independence School District in Missouri switched to a four-day week to attract new candidates. Balingit reports that the district superintendent said the district did this because “the number of applicants for even traditionally competitive roles — like elementary school teachers — dropped off considerably.” As soon as the shortened work week was announced, the applications in the district increased four-fold.
  • The Milwaukee public schools had around 200 vacancies going into this school year. This caused the district officials to start looking internationally for qualified teachers. “This year, schools in the city are set to hire 150 teachers from abroad, far more than in pre-pandemic years when they would hire just a few…”

While these are tactical solutions, all are inadequate because they do not put a fully qualified teacher into the classroom. Balingit stresses the importance of this, writing: “Research has shown that a good teacher makes a bigger difference in student achievement than anything else in the school. The impact is especially great on poor students and students of color, who are unfortunately the ones most likely to get underqualified educators.”

A Strategic Solution

What is demanded in these trying and troubling times for teachers — both current and future — is a strategic solution that addresses the root causes of the problem. Fortunately, in August of 2023, the Learning Policy Institute (LPI) issued an excellent report outlining The Federal Role in Ending Teaching Shortages.

The report, authored by Linda Darling-Hammond, Michael DiNapoli Jr., and Tara Kini sets forth and spells out seven key initiatives to confront and combat the teacher shortage. They are:

1. Increase educators’ net compensation through tax credits, housing subsidies, and salary incentives.

2. Strengthen recruitment by making teacher preparation debt-free.

3. Support improved preparation by expanding high-retention pathways into teaching.

4. Provide high-quality mentoring for all beginning teachers.

5. Increase investments that enable educators to expand and share expertise.

6. Incentivize the redesign of schools to support teaching and learning.

7. Rethink school accountability.

The LPI Report labels the initiatives in those seven areas a Marshall Plan for Teaching. Given the severe and serious nature of the problem, a Marshall Plan is exactly what is needed to restore and reinvigorate the nation’s teaching infrastructure.

But as with the Marshall Plan for Europe after World War II, the plan will need involvement and investment from the states, not just from the federal government. The Report recognizes and emphasizes this, stating that “A Marshall Plan for teaching should focus the powers of the federal government on working closely with states to support teaching supply and quality in at least seven key areas.”

In our opinion, given this contextual positioning, each state should develop its own strategic Marshall Plan to complement the national plan. This would enable the state to partner with the federal government and maximize the impact of the federal intervention for the state’s teachers, students, and schools.

Each state can put its plan together by conducting a comprehensive situational analysis of its teaching workforce. Based upon that analysis, it can determine where it stands currently with regard to the seven key areas, what needs to be done in each area, and whether additional areas need to be added. This analysis can be used to set the goals and define the strategies for a state-level strategic plan.

A Nation at Risk

The need for planning and implementing action is urgent because in 2024 in these United States, a teaching profession at risk puts the nation at risk.

That might seem like a bit of an overstatement. But, we should remember that in 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education, established by President Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Education T. H. Bell, produced a report titled A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform.

That Report, which focused primarily on teenagers and high schools, presented findings in four critical areas: content — curriculum; expectations — knowledge, skills and abilities school graduates should possess; time — spent in the classroom and on school work; and teaching — quality of those recruited to be teachers; teacher preparation; and teacher shortage in key fields.

The educational community and the American citizenry heard the message in the A Nation at Risk report and the imperative for educational reform was addressed almost immediately.

In 2023, the Hoover Institution at Stanford University issued a report titled A Nation at Risk+40: A Review of Progress in US Educational Reform. In the Introduction to that report, Stephen Bowen reviews the major educational reforms implemented over the past forty years, and explains how the chapters in the report evaluate the progress made by these reforms.

Bowen concludes his executive summary in the Introduction as follows:

Forty years on, significant challenges remain. The COVID-19 pandemic has had devastating effects on student learning, and chronic absenteeism remains at alarming rates. Even prior to the pandemic, student achievement, as measured by standardized tests, seemed to have plateaued despite ever-increasing resources — in time, dollars, research, technology, and human capital — being devoted to school reform.

At the end of his Introduction, Bowen observes

As the chapters in this series detail, widespread, energetic, and dedicated action is indeed what their remarkable little report inspired. Such action remains necessary today. The nation and its schools face challenges that are as great or greater than those they confronted forty years ago, and there is much to learn in the pages to follow about what was tried and why and what that tells us about the best path forward.

The Hoover Institution is not alone in its assessment of the current condition of our educational system and its correlation to the past. The Learning Policy Institute, in its Report on the teacher shortage, provides significant evidence for the problematic state of education in the United States today.

In a section titled “Déjà vu All Over Again,” it provides this analysis with evidence to support each point:

  • Unfortunately, the story of teacher shortages is not new: The nation has been in a recurring cycle of teacher shortages for at least the past 50 years.
  • Shortages are just one symptom of how teaching has struggled to be recognized and treated as a profession throughout most of U.S. history. Overall, teaching conditions in the United States compare poorly with those of other industrialized countries, especially those that are highest achieving.
  • At the root of the crisis in teaching is the way teaching was conceptualized when our current school structures were designed a century ago to accommodate compulsory mass education and the migration from rural to urban communities in the manufacturing boom generated by the Industrial Revolution.

LPI’s focus on teaching is critical because a qualified teacher is pivotal to student learning, as stated in its Report:

Research finds that individuals who enter teaching without having completed preparation — either through emergency permits or alternative pathways — are typically less effective and have significantly higher turnover rates, which both harm student achievement and create churn that exacerbates shortages. Research also finds that teacher quality is the most important in-school factor affecting student learning and the percentage of underprepared teachers in a district is strongly and negatively….associated with student achievement, especially for underserved students of color.

In 2024 we know the nature of the problem. It is well defined and documented. We also knew the nature of the problem in 1983. It was well defined and documented then.

The question, more than four decades later, is will the United States develop and implement the plans to address the problem satisfactorily? The importance of doing so is essential to the future of this nation and to ensuring that it is no longer a nation at risk.

Given this, it’s appropriate to close this blog with the following powerful statement from the A Nation at Risk report, which is as relevant today as it was in 1983:

For our country to function, citizens must be able to reach some common understandings on complex issues, often on short notice and on the basis of conflicting or incomplete evidence.

Education helps form these common understandings, a point Thomas Jefferson made long ago in his justly famous dictum: I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them but to inform their discretion.

Part of what is at risk is the promise first made on this continent: All, regardless of race or class or economic status, are entitled to a fair chance and to the tools for developing their individual powers of mind and spirit to the utmost. This promise means that all children by virtue of their own efforts, competently guided, can hope to attain the mature and informed judgment needed to secure gainful employment, and to manage their own lives, thereby serving not only their own interests but also the progress of society itself.

Public education is one of the primary pillars of our American democracy. Qualified teachers are the cement that helps hold that pillar together. Without them, that pillar will crumble and so will our democracy.

Originally published by the Frank Islam Institute for 21st Century Citizenship. For more information on what 21st century citizenship entails, and to see exemplars from around the world, please visit our website.

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Frank Islam & Ed Crego

Frank Islam is an entrepreneur, investor and philanthropist. Ed Crego is a management consultant. Both are leaders of the 21st century citizenship movement.