Policy Analysis | April 2011

Changes in Teaching as a Profession

Jonathan Watts Hull

There have been signs that the teacher supply system has been broken for years. Every year, schools of education produce thousands of graduates who enter the profession only to leave it after only a few years. Teacher turnover created such significant shortages that states have embraced alternative paths to teacher certification as a means to fill shortage areas and support schools struggling to fill teaching positions.

The recent economic downturn has changed this dynamic at a critical moment in the teaching profession. Alternative pathways for teachers are maturing into a viable alternative to traditional schools of education. Teach for America, the largest and most visible of these alternative programs, had more than 8,000 teachers in the field in the 2010-2011 school year. Across the country, alternative programs have been seen as a complement to traditional programs to prepare teachers for hard-to-find specialties (science, technology and math, in particular) and hard-to-staff schools.

This year, however, teachers are facing a very tough job market. This is not a surprise. Teaching is highly responsive to ups and downs in the economy, and its reputation as a "safe" profession with health and pension benefits attracted a number of individuals during the last recession. In the economic upswings that followed the two most recent recessions, teaching shortages returned shortly after the economy improved, due to increased attrition of in-service teachers and diminished intake of new teacher candidates as college students chose other professions over teaching.

This has happened at a juncture when several states have taken steps to eliminate teacher tenure, including Florida and Tennessee, a move that could create more openings in the field, but may also have the effect of discouraging entrants. At the same time, decreased budgets have lead to increased classroom sizes and limited educational technology and other instructional aids, which affects the manner in which instruction is conducted. These changes cumulatively make teaching more difficult, more complex, more demanding, and potentially less attractive to new entrants and experienced staff alike. Concern over the impact this situation might have has been voiced within the region and outside it.

They also are taking place at a juncture when teacher performance has entered center stage in the education reform debate. The push to measure teacher performance is on in a great number of states, with both rewards and sanctions depending upon how teachers measure up. As has been noted elsewhere, crafting a system that adequately measures teacher quality is not a simple matter. Improving the corps of teachers in the field is recognized as an imperative for improving student achievement and outcomes.

In the end, the demands on teachers are unlikely to ease, and the need for America to build a globally competitive workforce will only increase the need for highly competent, well-supported teachers. Attracting quality individuals to the field is of critical importance. Programs exist in the states to encourage top students to enter teaching, but in the current budget environment, even these are at risk.

As was noted by the director of the Programme for International Student Assessment, teaching is a high-status profession in countries that perform at the top of international comparisons, hailing from the tops of their classes in schools, and being viewed as professionals by society at large. This comment set off a wide ranging discussion of how (or even whether) to accomplish this.

For states, however, the reality of a fiscal crisis and rising educational pressures represent an opportunity to undertake major changes in education, most particularly with respect to the teaching profession. These changes are not without a degree of uncertainty in their potential outcomes, both in terms of student performance and the nature of teaching as a profession, but they will set the stage for future discussions of how American education can meet the challenges of the coming recovery.