Following the successful strike of teachers in West Virginia for higher pay, there has been increased focus on the longstanding issue of low pay and benefits for public school teachers. This is a critical issue that we’ve discussed before. One overlooked issue, however, is the number of people preparing to be teachers, or lack thereof. The so-called “teacher pipeline” is shrinking and many states could face a critical teacher shortage in the years to come as experienced teachers retire. Fortunately, public pensions can help recruit and retain new teachers.
Many states already face a teacher shortage. We’ve documented this challenge in Oklahoma in two reports and discussed the role pensions can play in keeping teachers in the classroom. Oklahoma is not the only state facing a teacher shortage. From Alaska to Mississippi, from Utah to Wisconsin, states are struggling to find enough qualified teachers. What is often overlooked in this discussion is the decreasing number of people preparing to become teachers.
There are a couple of ways to look at the teacher pipeline. One is to ask incoming college freshmen what they plan to study and track the number who pick education as a major. Another is to look at federal Department of Education Title II data on the number of people enrolled in teacher preparation programs. According to either measure, the number of people preparing to become teachers has dwindled since the Great Recession.
Examining the federal Title II data shows the number of people enrolled in teacher prep programs since the 2009-2010 school year has declined by 42 percent. The two states with the largest percentage decline in teacher prep are Idaho and Pennsylvania with a whopping 63 percent decline. Illinois is a close third with a 60 percent decline in teacher prep enrollment. Hawaii has experienced the smallest decline as the numbers have held steady there in recent years. Ultimately, every state has experienced a decline in the number of people preparing to become teachers.
The survey of incoming college freshmen tells a similar story. For freshmen entering college in 2016, only 4.6 percent said they planned to study education. In 2015, it was 4.2 percent. These are the lowest numbers ever recorded since the Chronicle of Higher Education began conducting this survey and are far below the double-digit figures reported as recently as 2003.
As the West Virginia teacher strike showed, pay matters. Public school teachers in many states are notoriously underpaid and often earn less than their similarly educated peers in the private sector. Despite this low pay, the overwhelming majority of teachers nationwide still have the opportunity to earn a defined benefit pension. Pension plans have proven to be effective at recruiting and retaining qualified teachers. According to the National Institute on Retirement Security, public pensions reduce teacher turnover costs by keeping experienced teachers in the classroom.
The shrinking teacher pipeline is a serious, but underappreciated crisis. With continuing cuts to education funding, stagnant pay, and constant attacks on their benefits, it should come as no surprise that fewer people are preparing to become teachers today. It will take a multi-pronged approach to get more qualified teachers in the classroom, but a good place to start is stopping the attacks on teachers’ benefits, such as defined benefit pensions.