Solving Kentucky’s teacher shortage crisis begins and ends with the money

There is no getting around it. Any real solution to Kentucky’s growing teacher shortage must involve higher salaries.

It has to.

That’s my take on the latest debate to strike Twitter feeds across the Bluegrass. With nearly 5,000 teaching positions still unfilled on this final week of July, Commissioner Lewis and Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) officials have become increasingly concerned about tackling Kentucky’s growing teacher shortage. That’s why KDE is launching a new recruitment initiative called Go Teach KY later this fall which intends to “recruit and inspire a new generation of teachers.”

They’re right to do so, because effective teachers are the most critical factor of a student’s academic success. However, if it stays on course as planned, Go Teach KY will only focus on recruiting more high school and college students and raising awareness of alternative certification pathways. Rethinking teacher pay isn’t a part of that conversation.

Until it is, teacher shortages aren’t going anywhere.

Systemic Problems Require Systemic Solutions

Teacher shortages are a systemic¬†problem. They aren’t caused by any single, identifiable factor; there are a whole host of reasons why it’s difficult for rural states like Kentucky to recruit highly-qualified teachers, particularly in subjects like math and physics. Those reasons range anywhere from public image to workload to advancement opportunities, and that makes solving teacher shortages a complicated process.

Systemic problems require systemic solutions. Stopgap measures only put a Band-Aid on the wound.

Case in point, there’s a famous story of a man who was fishing alongside the river when he discovers a group of people drowning. He begins by pulling each person out of the water and reviving them, but then he realizes that the number of drowning people keep growing. Each time he revives someone, he looks up to see that he’s barely put a dent in the number of people in trouble. He quickly grows exhausted, and decides it would be much smarter to simply walk upstream and see what’s going on. He does so, and just a few hundred yards from where he was fishing, he discovers a broken bridge.

In the case of teacher shortages, salaries are the broken bridge that got us here. Teaching pays less than nearly all other professions that require similar education, and most college students aren’t interested in getting multiple degrees for a career that tops out at $50,000. Unless you just know that teaching is your calling, there’s no real financial incentive to pursue it as a career.

That’s precisely the reason why I struggled for so long before finally deciding to go into teaching. I was a Governor’s Scholar and a top 10% student in my graduating class, and I knew that a law degree was fully within my reach. By the time I finished my (then) required Master’s degree, my teacher education was just as long as law school would have been, but my salary would be double what it is now.

Instead, like every other teacher, I chose this profession because I knew I could make a difference. That was more important to me than money. However, as long as people feel forced to choose between the two, teaching will never be societally viewed as an honorable pathway for Kentucky’s best and brightest students.¬†

I’ll applaud Go Teach KY’s efforts when it launches later this year, but I’ll also remain skeptical that it’s enough to tackle the systemic nature of teacher shortages. Instead, Kentucky is going to have to go a little further upstream to get folks thinking seriously about teaching as a profession. I don’t think that can happen unless higher pay is involved.

I’m glad to see that some of those conversations are already happening (like this one, and this one, and this one), and at some point, I’ll tackle that myself. What are your thoughts?

Photo from Lead Beyond, CC-Licensed.

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