Updated: Oct 15
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BY STEVE NUZUM
As the 2023-24 school year kicks into high gear, it appears that journalists and pundits have suddenly realized what was already obvious to education professionals: we are in an unprecedented, serious, and potentially catastrophic crisis involving the recruitment and retention of teachers and other educational staff.
Just last summer, researchers were saying the crisis was “overstated.” According to a
Hechinger Report from last August,
“Among researchers, I think we’ve reached a consensus that there hasn’t been an
exodus of teachers during the pandemic,” said Heather Schwartz, a researcher at
RAND, a nonprofit research organization which regularly surveys school districts
around the country about their staffing. “I don’t see many district leaders saying we
have a serious, severe shortage of teachers. I don’t see the crisis.”
But a year later, as Anne Lutz Fernandez points out, the same foundation contributed to a report showing the opposite:
● “Staffing shortages posed a key challenge to implementing recovery programs.”
● “Some school systems used a portion of their federal recovery funds to ease teacher labor market pressures by offering signing and retention bonuses, but these measures often didn't work. Teachers continued to leave, school system leaders said, often in the middle of the year.”
● “This leader, like others we interviewed, described the challenges they encountered trying provide professional learning to teachers starting in 2021-22 school, mostly due to a shortage of substitute teachers to cover classrooms so teachers could attend learning sessions.”
South Carolina’s Proviso 1.114 (part of the 2022–23 budget act), required the creation of taskforce to analyze and offer recommendations on the state’s own teacher retention and
recruitment crisis. Through a series of public input sessions, the taskforce listened to teachers, librarians, other educators, and members of the public, and researched what other states were doing to address their own issues.
It also conducted a survey of employees (which sadly only received 176 responses). While the survey is publicly available, I’m not going to share it here because the taskforce unfortunately published it without redacting participants’ names and other identifying information.
Skimming over survey results reveals a few apparent trends:
● Of course, compensation is an issue, but most respondents seem to be equally
concerned about school climate, a lack of respect for the education profession, and a politically-motivated narrative that educators are somehow the villains who are
● Many of the respondents seem to be speech-language pathologists, which suggests that a group or professional association encouraged members to participate. Many of their responses suggest we are not doing a good job of realizing that education relies on many professionals who are not traditional classroom teachers. One crucial element of modern education which is often overlooked (probably intentionally) by those arguing that “money doesn’t fix everything” is that schools now offer an immense number of community resources beyond classroom teaching, including social workers, counselors, psychologists, special education aides, technology specialists, and more. As we have invested less in other parts of our social safety net, we’ve seen a growing need for these services at school.
A more robust survey by SC-Teacher seems to support some of these findings with its
● Resources of staff cooperation, principal communication, and classroom
autonomy were rated the highest among the teachers’ working conditions
but were not the strongest factors related to teachers’ job satisfaction and
intent to stay in the profession.
● Student misbehavior was the least favorable area among the 11 working
conditions but was not strongly related to teachers’ job satisfaction and
intent to stay in the profession.
● Teachers’ perceptions of the time available to complete their duties were
strongly associated with intending to stay in the profession and choosing a
teaching career again.
● Student engagement varied the most depending on the school context.
SCTWCS results indicated that student engagement was rated highest in
elementary schools, schools located in suburban and rural areas, and
schools with lower levels of student poverty.
● Administrative support and influence over school policy demonstrated a
consistent association with teachers’ job satisfaction and intent to stay in the
profession. Teachers, on average, reported positive perceptions of
administrative support, but the perceived influence on decision-making and
school policy was rated much lower.
Anyway, this is all great. But like me, I assume most current and former educators are
responding to these survey results with some variation of, “Wow, really? You don’t say!” As with so many other problems facing education, there is a tendency to think that valid and accurate data is an end-goal instead of information that can help us achieve our actual goals.
For more on this, check out teacher and advocate Pete Stone’s great explainer, in which he wisely says, “Using a standardized test as the sole method of measuring excellence is as silly as a strength coach saying, ‘Alright, anyone who bench presses 275 or 315 gets an A.’”
In other words, we must know what we are trying to find out, which data will help us find that out, and what to do with that information. The data here largely tells us what we already know.
After all, educators been warning for decades that this kind of retention and recruitment crisis would happen, and the warnings have become increasingly dire. Particularly in 2018 and 2019, we saw a series of walkouts, strikes, protests, and rallies across the country, all focused around demands for better pay and working conditions, mental health services for students, and ways of addressing the post-recession slashes to many state education budgets.
In South Carolina, as in other media markets across the country, these warnings have often been met with gaslighting and a blame game that always seems to end with teachers on the losing end.
Politicians who run on a platform of “school reform” have little incentive to take the blame for decades of underfunding. Instead, they find someone else to blame when angry parents call because they feel their children aren’t getting the services and attention they need from an understaffed, overworked school system.
For many South Carolina teachers, the announcement of the taskforce was met with a kind of bitter laugh. It seemed like another meeting about a meeting, another committee to tell us what we already know so that legislators can kick the can down the road once again instead of solving the problems.
We should believe the taskforce members when they say that they are truly looking for
solutions, although this would be much easier to do if the members would defend librarians, who testified at the taskforce’s request.
There are some good people on that panel. But recommendations without follow-through are a literal waste of time.
It’s hard to get people to take a survey, to drive to a committee hearing, to contact a legislator, to protest, to vote, to attend a school board meeting, to run for office. Using this political capital is a waste if no one reads this report and if those in power continue to ignore it. We need the public to demand some kind of action.
From The SCEA:
We encourage you to do three things today:
Check your voter registration: https://vrems.scvotes.sc.gov/Voter/Login?PageMode=VoterInformation.
If you are not registered to vote, register today: https://vrems.scvotes.sc.gov/ovr/start.
Check with at least three of your friends/colleagues to do the same.