Comment: Today’s teacher shortages part of a historic pattern

Lagging problems with demanding work and low pay prompt a run for the door during cyclical shocks.

By Diana D’Amico Pawlewicz / Special To The Washington Post

America’s schools are receiving significant attention thanks to fierce debates over covid-19 mitigation methods and curriculum. But they have another more significant problem a century in the making that has generated far less of a spotlight: a teacher shortage felt in every state.

School district leaders have resorted to hiring substitute and emergency licensed teachers and asking burned-out teachers to do more.

The problem is these stopgap measures are not working particularly well. A schools superintendent in Bothell, Wash., recently resorted to filling in as a physical education teacher. In Bristol Township, Pa., officials canceled classes at one school Friday because they did not have enough teachers to open.

And this is nothing new; in fact, it is a historical pattern. At its root, the problem stems from school leaders ignoring teacher complaints about low pay, stifling bureaucracies, and lack of respect and autonomy. Over the past century, this refusal has left schools vulnerable to wars, demographic shifts and now the coronavirus pandemic. Each time, rather than deal with the deeper problems that leave schools vulnerable to teacher shortages, administrators and school boards opt for short-term bandages that have proved inefficient, ineffective and injurious.

By the first decades of the 20th century, labor laws pushed children out of factories and into schools, expanding the reach and infrastructure of public education across the country. And as schools grew, teachers and their advocates made their discontents known. With few worker protections in place, school leaders could fire and fine teachers without cause. Writing on teachers’ working conditions, John Dewey reflected: “The situation would be ridiculous if it were not so serious.”

Female teachers led by Margret Haley and others organized and formed associations to achieve equal pay for equal work and have a say in how schools were run. But school leaders like Chicago’s Jacob Loeb dismissed their pleas, arguing that such teachers “terrorized and manacled the entire school system.”

When World War I hit, so too did the consequences of this dismissal. In 1918, one reporter warned that the country was facing a “teacher famine.” In rural and urban areas, teachers were “resigning from their positions in the schools to take up other kinds of work” where they could earn more money and have better working conditions. In Iowa, there were 160 schools with no teachers at all, and in Louisiana, the state superintendent worried that the state would have to shutter its schools. Facing widespread school closures, Alabama state leaders called for “emergency training courses” that would bring adults to the schools quickly.

By 1920, more than 143,000 teachers had quit, and districts relied on stopgap measures like lowering standards for entry and carving out emergency pathways to help weather the storm. While city leaders were generally able to find enough adults to keep schools open, critics fretted over quality as more than half of the nation’s teachers had just a high school education.

Yet, teaching offered stability and as the Depression years gripped the nation, it once again became coveted employment as other options withered. That left district leaders — buoyed by bulging oversupply — with little incentive to make structural change to give teachers the voice, authority and autonomy they wanted.

Predictably, however, without these changes, World War II produced a similar result as the first. In fact, the shortage was even more severe. Under the headline of “Missing: 115,000 teachers,” one national magazine told readers, “America’s schools are in a sense one of the casualties of war.”

Not only had the war opened up more lucrative and enticing employment options for individuals who may have otherwise taught, but postwar demographic shifts, including the creation of America’s suburbs and the baby boom, compounded the already complex situation. Amid these challenges, however, administrators once again refused to listen to teachers’ demands.

Reformers and social commentators instead blamed teachers for underperforming schools, leaving teacher morale in the words of Charles Cogen, the New York teacher and labor leader, “in the doldrums.” “More bluntly,” he explained, “one is struck by the discontent and bitterness that sounds forth whenever teachers freely express themselves.” In addition, as one article in the American Teacher offered, “it would take a long letter to enumerate all the abuses in the school system today.”

Critical onlookers and school officials dismissed teachers as greedy and full of “self-pity.” But as David Seldon, another teacher and union leader explained, the pay issue was just the tip of the iceberg. Teachers were “dissatisfied” because they had “little or no control over the conditions under which they practice their profession.” Teachers wanted higher pay, more say over what they taught and less oversight from administrators. Improvements along those lines, they argued, would keep professional teachers in the classrooms, and schoolchildren would be the ultimate winners.

School leaders offered different solutions. Charles H. Tye, superintendent of the Sioux County Iowa schools, wanted to tackle the problem by linking marriage possibilities to employment. “If any teachers find it hard to get dates or land a man, and they have what it takes; personality and brains,” he explained to a Time Magazine reporter, “just come to Sioux County … we need both teachers and wives up here.” Though perhaps less creative, other school districts also tried to lure prospective teachers to their schools. In Portland, Ore., PTAs and school boards promised to throw welcome parties for new teachers. And in Minneapolis, school leaders pledged to set aside a day when the city would give each teacher an orchid.

These temporary solutions did bring more teachers into the classroom, but they had dangerous consequences. A questionnaire prepared by the U.S. Office of Education in 1957 found that 50 percent of new teachers planned to quit in the next five years.

Moreover, they didn’t address the push by communities of color for equal representation in the hiring of teachers. School leaders instead routinely rebuffed their demands, often arguing that teachers of color could be hired, if only they were qualified to pass the necessary certification and licensure exams, something researchers and community activists increasingly agreed were racially biased. Following the incendiary Ocean Hill Brownsville teacher strikes of 1968, school leaders in New York identified diversifying the city’s teacher corps as one way to quell tensions. Yet rather than remove the racist exams or retool the hiring system, school leaders turned to the same methods they used to confront teacher shortages: hire temporary substitutes, paraprofessionals and emergency licensed teachers.

This quick fix was an immediate victory: Thousands of teachers of color made their way into the city’s schools. But these teachers sat on the lowest rung of the school hierarchy, beneath the nearly all-white “regularly” licensed teachers. Additionally, the new educators lacked the protections their regularly licensed, white colleagues enjoyed. Unsurprisingly then, when New York City leaders attempted to avoid bankruptcy in 1975 by calling for layoffs, it was the teachers of color who had just made their way into the schools who were the first to go.

Decades of the same pattern explain why the solutions administrators are deploying to plug the holes caused by the coronavirus and burnout are, at best, temporary fixes papering over a problem that continues to fester. Stopgap hires have turned teaching into a revolving door profession, diminishing teachers’ claims of profession, leaving new entrants vulnerable and underpaid, and hurting students who suffer when teacher turnover is high. If anything, the newfound scrutiny on what educators teach will only exacerbate the problem, driving even more teachers out.

Teachers have long explained what they need to stay. Unless administrators, school boards and communities start listening, the pattern repeating itself again today will continue to rear its ugly head.

Diana D’Amico Pawlewicz is a historian of education policy at the University of North Dakota, a Visiting Scholar at the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement at the University of Richmond and an editor of Made by History. Her next book, “Walkout! Teacher Militancy, Activism, and School Reform,” and will be available in 2022.

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