There’s a chance these plans will see results: A number of studies—including one on a program in North Carolina that offered a bonus of $1,800 to only math, science, and special-education teachers working in struggling public schools—have shown that modest salary increases can help stem turnover. But it’s hard to say whether such proposals will ultimately have long-lasting impact on the general teacher shortage. Surveys suggest that although teachers’ job satisfaction has declined significantly in recent years, their perceptions about pay have hardly changed; factors beyond money contribute to the recruitment-and-turnover problems.
In places already struggling with shortages and those resorting to mass emergency certifications, the challenge is finding new teachers who are qualified, competent, and dedicated to the profession. Achieving this goal, researchers say, is complicated—something that a few extra hundred, or even thousand, dollars alone won’t solve. “If you want to improve the pipeline of new teachers, you have to start early,” said Sean Corcoran, an associate professor of educational economics at NYU who has conducted extensive research on the U.S. teaching force. “Raising salaries today is not going to increase the quality of recruits tomorrow.”
Perceived low pay certainly seems to account for a tiny slice of teachers’ concerns; salaries, Corcoran said, “are definitely not the end of the story.” In a “Quality of Worklife” survey of more than 30,000 educators last year, just 46 percent said their salaries were a major source of stress in the workplace. Testing fatigue, bloated bureaucracy, little time to reflect and decompress and develop professionally have all taken a significant toll on teachers’ job satisfaction. In that same survey, which was conducted jointly by the American Federation of Teachers and an activist group known as the Badass Teachers Association, nearly three in four respondents identified the “adoption of new initiatives without proper training or professional development” as a major source of stress, for example. “We used to be treated as professionals who were allowed to have autonomy in our classrooms and play to our strengths or our background in education,” Rebecca Simcoe, a former high-school English teacher in Tulsa with a doctorate who resigned in 2014, told CBS News last year. “Now we’re expected to be automatons following their robotic instructions, just getting these kids to pass tests.” Most states, from Oregon to New York, now tie teacher evaluations to student test scores; in 2009, only a handful of states did so.
And teachers’ workplace woes run the gamut from the political to the mundane: As I’ve written before, the Quality of Worklife survey found that one in four teachers cite their lack of time to use the restroom is an everyday stressor. It’s no wonder so many teachers opt to work in private schools, which typically offer much lower pay but working conditions that are far more palatable. Or that they often forego sizable raises in exchange for working in tougher conditions. One Mathematica study on 10 school districts in multiple states found that a majority of the candidates who’d been selected for a program offering $20,000 to highly effective teachers who agreed to transfer to and remain at low-performing schools declined to participate; most didn’t even attend an information session. As the teacher Paul Barnwell argued in a piece for The Atlantic last year, “No matter the compensation scheme, these strategies fail to acknowledge the impact of school culture and climate on work satisfaction—which often takes precedence over pay for experienced teachers.”