Principal’s View: To Fix Learning Losses, Expand Loan Forgiveness for Educators

Sackey: Congress is considering this cost-effective strategy that will attract talented teachers to the education field & give them the means to stay

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The results of the most recent Nation’s Report Card found students across almost all states and demographic groups showing steep declines in academic achievement. Talented teachers and principals will be crucial to reversing this trend. But my middle school, and schools like it throughout the country, are struggling to hire and keep staff. Expanded loan forgiveness for educators is one of the most cost-effective measures for retaining the personnel needed to increase student achievement.

I’ve been an educator for over 22 years and a principal for 10 years. Normally — even during the worst of the pandemic — I would start the summer with one or two positions to fill. But this year I had vacancies in areas including math, science and special education and in roles supporting students with special needs. In some cases, qualified applicants turned me down because of the stress of the job and, in some instances, salary issues. 

It’s hardly just classroom positions that are tough to fill. In the National Association of Secondary School Principals’s Survey of America’s School Leaders and High School Students, half of principals said their stress was so high they were considering a career change or retirement and nearly three-quarters agreed that staffing shortages are a problem at their school.

Districts have had to get creative to ensure high-quality instruction despite staffing gaps. One solution has been to pay educators extra for taking on an additional subject, dividing the workload of a missing teacher among those who remain. That approach, however, is far from sustainable; having teachers and administrators cover classes during their prep periods or take on extra duties is fueling burnout among faculty members. 

A more sustainable way to reverse this trend and make it enticing to become and remain an educator comes down to loan forgiveness. 

Loan forgiveness mitigates the teacher pay penalty — the 23.5% less teachers earn than comparable college graduates. As the price of higher education continues to climb, erasing thousands of dollars of debt is a valuable financial incentive, especially in hard-to-staff subjects like math, science and special education. Fewer prospective teachers would have to choose between pursuing their calling and starting a family or buying a home.

Loan forgiveness can also inspire people to enter the profession instead of other vocations. At my previous school, teachers told me they took the job because they would qualify for federal Teacher Loan Forgiveness and similar programs — and planned to leave as soon as their loans were paid. My beginning teachers were making about $50,000. But with an average debt of $58,700, the prospect of $17,500 in loan forgiveness was attractive enough to make the job worthwhile. And when they finally qualified to receive the money, almost all had discovered such love for teaching and for their students that they remained in education.

Expanding eligibility beyond K-12 teachers in low-income schools and raising the $17,500 limit on loan forgiveness would make teaching and school administration a more attractive career path for young people, and help retain those who have already become educators.

Although loan forgiveness options for classroom teachers are woefully inadequate, school leaders have almost none, and teachers often become ineligible once they move into the principalship. This can disincentivize excellent educators from using their talents to support an entire school community. Given that effective leadership is second only to classroom instruction among school-based factors in raising academic achievement, loan forgiveness for principals could go a long way to returning student learning to pre-pandemic levels.

At the NASSP, we’ve been working with Congress on a solution to fill gaps in loan forgiveness. The recently introduced Loan Forgiveness for Educators Act offers one of the most comprehensive improvements. Endorsed by 50 education organizations, this bill would: 

  • Provide full student loan forgiveness to educators who teach for five years in high-needs schools;
  • Expand loan forgiveness to school leaders and early childhood educators;
  • Ensure teachers keep forgiveness benefits if their school no longer high-needs or if they take on additional responsibilities.

Such changes can jumpstart a virtuous cycle, in which new educators lighten the load of those already in the profession. As Congress responds to plummeting national test data in the coming months, expanding loan forgiveness is a cost-effective strategy that will attract talented teachers to the education field and give them the means to stay.

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