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Too Few Teachers; Too Much Blame on NCLB

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There was an article in the Washington Post last Sunday that infuriated me. It wasn't the article so much as the headline: "Schools Pinched in Hiring: Teacher Shortage Looms as Law Raises Bar and Boomer Women Retire."

From this, one might infer that the growing teacher shortage and our inability to keep talented teachers in the classroom is the fault of President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, which tightened requirements for teacher qualifications (just as some would like to blame NCLB for everything that is wrong with our public schools).

I'm not here to defend NCLB, but I also don't want us to hide behind NCLB either. We've got a problem; the Washington Post highlighted it -- we are on the verge of a catastrophic teacher shortage. The National Education Association predicts that nationwide, more than 3.9 million teachers will be needed by 2014 because of current rates of teacher attrition, baby boomer retirement, and increasing student enrollment. Instead of blaming NCLB, we need to look to the root causes of this situation.

Richard J. Murnane, an economist at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education, is the co-author (with Jennifer Steele) of a recent report arguing that if the United States is to equip its young people with skills essential in the new economy, high-quality teachers are more important than ever. Women and minorities have filled a disproportionate number of the teaching slots across the nation, but they now have more career options, making it increasingly difficult to attract and retain the many effective teachers who are needed.

Murnane is quoted in the Post as saying, "It's not that you don't have some terrifically talented people going into teaching. You do. The issue is that you don't have enough. And many are the most likely to leave teaching, because they have lots of other opportunities."

About a third of new teachers leave the profession after three years. After five years, the number is closer to 50 percent, the Center on Education Policy reported in 2006. Recruiting and training new teachers costs the country $7 billion a year, according to an estimate by the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future.

We have both a challenge and an opportunity before us. We cannot continue to fail children because recruiting and retaining new teachers is too hard. The key is in the support -- America doesn't treat teaching like a profession.

Any policy maker will tell you that teachers matter, but when it comes to the actual policy, we sure don't act like it: We do not give teachers the same opportunities for advancement and better pay that other professionals enjoy. We do not offer higher salaries to compete with other professionals for adults who have strong math and science backgrounds. And we do not pay teachers more even when we ask them to take on harder jobs.

Is it any wonder young teachers quit? They've been taught that success means moving upwards, which is hard to do under the current system, and America's students are worse off for it.

This does not mean the situation is hopeless. It's not. State and local leaders have begun implementing innovative programs that focus on reforming traditional systems for teacher advancement and pay. In every other profession those who are smart, innovative, and overcome challenges are rewarded, why not in teaching?

This is positive thinking in the right direction, but we need more. And, yes, we do need to pay teachers more when they possess special skills and tackle difficult assignments and achieve outstanding results with our students, but with the higher pay must come higher expectations. We must hold them accountable for student achievement.

The Strong American Schools Campaign, of which I am the executive director, urges policy makers and political candidates to demand real changes in the way we attract, support, and keep our nation's teachers and spend less time worrying about special interests and institutional barriers to change. We can no longer run away from this issue.