Monday, February 19, 2018

Is PA Chasing Teachers Away

The Economic Policy Institute has just released a new report, and announced it with this subheading: "Undercompensation is likely a factor in Pennsylvania’s growing teacher shortage."

Pennsylvania has been working on a teacher shortage for a while, but for years we cleverly masked it by shedding teacher jobs by the thousands. From a distance, that made it appear that our teacher supply was reasonably stable, because districts were complaining far less about a teacher "shortage" than other states were. But it was also exacerbated the problems with the teacher pipeline long term because high school and college students could look around their home districts and see that nobody new had been hired for years. "Why pay college tuition to pursue a field in which there are no jobs," was the comment I heard more times than I could count from my own students. That in turn led many universities to trim their own education programs.

EPI describes the decline this way:

Pennsylvania is in the midst of a growing teacher shortage. The rate of Pennsylvania teacher certifications has declined by two-thirds between 2010 and 2015 (Benshoff 2016). College students are shunning education majors, with reports indicating that enrollment fell by 36 percent in traditional teacher education programs at the 14 Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education colleges (Palochko 2016). In 2013, 16,631 students graduated from teacher-training programs; by 2015, that number had dropped to 6,125, a 63 percent decline, according to data from the state’s Department of Education (PDE) reported on WHYY public radio in Philadelphia (Benshoff 2016).

EPI also notes that this is found in the substitute teacher sector, and from big districts like Philadelphia all the way down to my own tiny corner of the world, the substitute shortage is pretty dire.

EPI set out to see if compensation was an issue, and they did the old "compare teacher pay to pay in fields requiring similar education and skills" research. Their findings are not particularly surprising:

We find that Pennsylvania public school teachers are undercompensated relative to other full-time workers with similar education and skills. Their weekly wages are 12.1 percent lower than the wages of comparable full-time employees in Pennsylvania, and their weekly compensation (including both wages and benefits) is 6.8 percent lower.

In addition, EPI also looked at pensions-- and here's where PA is in real trouble.

We are outstandingly underfunded, our system suffering from some epic bad choices made by the legislation over a decade ago (among other things, we bet heavily on the housing boom of 2007). The legislation has been looking for a variety of fixes:

Pension legislation passed in 2010 (Act 120) decreased PSERS benefits for teachers hired in 2011 and later, while a 2017 law (Act 5) will further cut pension benefits for teachers hired in 2019 (and beyond). Act 5 will require new teachers to participate in a pension plan that significantly shifts funding from the state and school districts onto employees. The new plan includes 401(k)-style offerings, which also shift retirement income risk onto teachers.

Which is why the pension for me with 39 years in the classroom is looking far rosier than the pension that my wife faces with her 5 years. And as EPI notes, the state still isn't done fiddling, which means that lifetime compensation for PA teachers continues to be cut, and cut, and cut. "Well, the pay may not be super, but at least you'll can rest secure in the knowledge that when you finally retire, you may or may not be financially screwed in your old age," is not a very snappy or effective recruitment slogan.

And so we're back to the same old point. There is no teacher shortage. What there is is a shortage of states and districts willing to make teaching attractive enough to draw the candidates they want. If I can't buy a Porsche for $1.95, it does not follow that there is an automobile shortage. Pennsylvania has not yet put real muscle into trying to "solve" the problem by, say, letting anyone with a pulse hold a teaching job, or by trying to bolster growth of charters that can hire without regard to actual qualifications. But the state also hasn't shown any inclination to try to make teaching more attractive as a career, either. We could do better. It remains to be seen if we'll actually try to.


  1. A few random thoughts:
    1. It always amazes me that school boards and such justify the high salaries of superintendents by saying something to the effect of "we must provide compensation for what they would earn in the private sector." (To be fair, this is the boilerplate for executive-level government jobs in a lot of areas). Why exactly, does this argument seem to never to apply to the rank and file worker?

    2. American teachers are asked "Why can't you guys perform like your peers in Finland?" and yet, reformers stay silent on the investment, both in training and compensation, that that country gives to its teachers.

    3. Of course, rather than truly meet the supply and demand issue at hand, we simply continue to watch our profession become more and more deprofessionalized. Perhaps it's my general feeling of hopelessness after last week, but I don't see any widespread politically viable solutions, which makes me wonder exactly how low will the bar go? Aren't we already at the point in some places where high school graduates can get emergency certification? What about high school dropouts? Are they next?

  2. I can't speak to the specific situation in Pennsylvania, but I would ask where do you think Pennsylvania is chasing teachers to? Do you think it's any better in other states? Maybe Vermont, but they only need so many teachers. Other professions? Trust me, it's not any better anywhere else. Pennsylvania (and all other states) can afford to treat teachers however they want because under neoliberalism there is nowhere for anyone to go.

    1. I think PA is chasing people away from the profession entirely.