Allen: The Solution to the Nation’s Teacher Shortage? Make Them Entrepreneurs, With Autonomy, Authority and a Salary to Match
Updated Sept. 20
Teacher shortages are reaching epidemic proportions. Fewer people with state-required credentials are available to teach, and surveys suggest that almost half are considering leaving the profession.
To “help,” states are lowering their hiring criteria and standards altogether. Missouri districts “have been rehiring retired teachers, training counselors and coaches to teach and even putting unqualified teachers in classrooms.” In Illinois, “Gov. JB Pritzker signed a law eliminating a requirement for teacher candidates to pass basic skills test to get an educator license.”
Many believe the culprit is salaries. But in an analysis for The Atlantic, Liz Riggs found otherwise: “Higher pay doesn’t necessarily lead to a better retention rate,” she wrote. Thomas Smith, a Vanderbilt University professor, told her there’s evidence that “teachers are more interested in working at schools where the conditions of work are good rather than in getting paid more.” A study by the Benwood Foundation that offered Chattanooga teachers large bonuses to go into lower-performing schools found that few were willing to move for this kind of offer and that teachers already in those schools were not jumping at them.
But a core reason so many teachers are considering leaving the profession is the lack of autonomy. As one prestigious ed school professor puts it, “Teachers in schools do not call the shots. They have very little say.”
Giving teachers the ability to innovate would not only improve satisfaction but also lead to far better results for students. So while headlines (and unions) scream that it’s all about the pay, the real solution is enabling them to be entrepreneurs.
Entrepreneurs prize autonomy. They have key traits — boldness, imagination, creativity — that help them disrupt the status quo. The entrepreneurial process requires decision-making skills to determine whether or how to exploit an opportunity, the ability to obtain and organize resources, and the capacity to utilize that opportunity for the development of a new venture. Entrepreneurs are results-driven, take responsibility for their decisions and need personal power to be agile — all things not typically found in traditional schools. Yet ensuring that teachers remain engaged and autonomous is crucial to their long-term satisfaction. Without that freedom, teachers cannot create the best conditions needed for learning.
The science of happiness underscores why this is the case. According to Arthur Brooks, “an external locus of control brings unhappiness,” which, in the case of teachers, is almost everything. Not only can they not control the conditions that bring students to their classes, but they have little say in what they can do to improve those conditions. And the effort they do put in, while enduring onerous rules and regulations, is not rewarded financially. Pay is determined by prescribed, uniform pay scales according to seniority and tenure. Unions demand that no factor (or great innovation or accomplishment) merit higher salaries, while bureaucracies impede innovation. No wonder teachers don’t relish returning to school after summer vacation!
Conversely, other countries that typically pay educators significantly more, such as Luxembourg and Switzerland, are highly performance-driven and afford their small cantons (districts) considerable flexibility, determining their own “school calendar, education structure, methods of teaching, and curricula.” Indeed, that is the key to creating an effective and attractive profession, and one that makes our educators happy: driving decisions and funds to the school level. If we allowed teachers to act as entrepreneurs, making rapid decisions locally and changing course when conditions warrant, they would be able to derive joy from their own endeavors, grow what they start and reap the rewards of success.
Teacher compensation should reflect the scope of the work teachers perform: what they are able to create, how many students they teach and how often, and the responsibilities they have. Consider the value of a school’s various programs: A music- or fine-arts-focused school might pay a higher premium to the artists who come to teach, whereas a STEM-specialty school might want to incentive scientists to come to its classroom. But differentiated pay is fought vigorously by teachers unions who believe paying more for doing more is somehow unfair!
Not only should we differentiate based on skills, needs and abilities, The National Council on Teacher Quality suggests that “to ensure that teachers are meaningfully compensated for exemplary performance, while simultaneously leveraging a powerful recruitment tool for hard-to-staff positions,” we should consider innovative hiring solutions to improve the candidate pool. Retired baby boomers — many of whom are entrepreneurs — say they’d easily consider teaching in a specialty area or supporting teachers. Educators who are new parents might do online support or work on-site for limited hours. Others might combine a full day with more responsibilities throughout the entire year, warranting additional pay.
While thousands of employment variations like this exist in other sectors, few are at work in education, except at private or charter schools. Hiring practices are guided by years of cumulative state lawmaking and district mandates, which themselves are often determined by labor negotiations.
There are some encouraging signs, but they are just baby steps toward a necessary reformation of the profession. Some states, such as Louisiana and Utah, have legislated that performance be taken into consideration when paying teachers. North Carolina and Florida emphasize teacher effectiveness in determining pay scales. In Indiana, Ohio, Arizona and Tennessee, differential and competitive salaries are awarded to individuals who specialize.
But these are modest measures compared to the enormity of the problem: We expect teachers to perform according to someone else’s plans, ideas, rules and requirements. Our educators do yeoman’s work despite the odds — just imagine what they could do if they had control!
America currently faces an annual estimated shortage of more than 100,000 teachers, and the deficit continues to grow. Our nation is full of people who can and would gladly educate our kids, but they won’t enter a profession akin to a straitjacket, limited to certain times of day, locations and uniformity. And districts won’t hire people who don’t have the required credential, even though it rarely has anything to do with the quality of instruction a teacher can provide.
It’s time to turn education on its head and reboot the entire profession. Give educators the opportunity to work as innovatively as they need to in order to impart the wisdom they are hired to deliver. Pay them for what, how much and how well they work. Give people from all walks of life the chance to engage in educating in a variety of ways. That’s how we will retain and attract the best we can offer. All other policy prescriptions and union demands are a disservice to — and a distraction from — a critical and noble profession. And they won’t do anything to stem the tide of a shortage of high-quality individuals needed to teach our youth.
Jeanne Allen is founder and CEO of the Center for Education Reform. She has a master’s in education entrepreneurship from the University of Pennsylvania.
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