Thanks largely to a nationwide campaign by educators, the country is finally talking about how we can recruit, support and retain teachers. This is an important discussion, says Richard Ingersoll, professor of education and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, because “the teaching force has been transformed over the last 30 years, with significant financial, structural, and educational consequences.”
Ingersoll recently updated “Seven Trends: The Transformation of the Teaching Force,” his longitudinal study on the elementary and secondary teaching force that culls data from several comprehensive sources, including the Schools and Staffing Survey.
“Too often, researchers, school leaders, and policymakers are still operating under false assumptions about who goes into teaching and how teaching careers unfold,” Ingersoll said. “If we want to improve student performance, we must understand this new reality.”
Here are Ingersoll’s key findings:
A Growing Profession
Since 1987, the size of the teaching force, says Ingersoll, has “ballooned.”
Student enrollment and the number of teachers peaked in the 1970s, then leveled off before climbing again in the late ’80s. The teaching force has been on the uptick ever since (except for the period following the Great Recession), even outpacing the rate of increase for students.
From 1987-88 to 2015-16, total K-12 student enrollment in the nation’s public schools went up by 24 percent. During the same period the teacher workforce increased by 65 percent.
Pinpointing one decisive factor to explain the growth of the profession is difficult. Ingersoll cites the demands for more math and science teachers and more special education teachers. In particular, there has been dramatic increase (225 percent since 1987) in the number of bilingual/English-as-a-second language teachers.
Gender Imbalance Wider
Teaching in public schools has aways been a predominantly female occupation. Over the past 30 years, the gender gap has only grown. Both the number of women entering the field and the percentage of female teachers has increased. In 1987, 67 percent of teachers were women. By 2016-17, that number had risen to 76 percent.
Despite the dramatic increase of women employed in the U.S. labor force overall – 36 percent growth between 1988 and 2016 – the number of women who entered K-12 classrooms increased by 80 percent during the same period.
If the trend continues, soon 8 of 10 public school teachers in the nation will be women, and more students will encounter few, if any, male teachers during their elementary or secondary school careers.
Moreover, Ingersoll wrote, “an increasing proportion of women in teaching may have implications for the stature and status of teaching as an occupation. Traditionally, women’s work has been held in lower esteem and has paid less than male-dominated work. If the feminization of teaching continues, what will it mean for the way this line of work is valued and rewarded?”
Grayer and Greener
Overall, the teaching force is older than it was in 1987 and retirements are increasing. But Ingersoll notes that this trend is coming to an end. The number of teachers age 50 and over hit a peak in 2008 with 1.74 million. By 2016, the number had declined to 1.13 million.
At the same time, another trend is occurring, which Ingersoll calls the “greening” of the teaching force, driven by a dramatic increase in new hires.
In 1987-88, there were roughly 65,000 first-year public school teachers. 30 years later, there are more than 190,000. In 2007-08, the most common age for a teacher was 55. In 2015-16, the most common age ranged from the mid-30s to mid-40s.
While new teachers can help revitalize a school, the report noted that a large number of beginners also has its downsides.
“A sufficient number of experienced teachers makes a positive difference for beginning teachers,” the report said. “A solid body of empirical research documents that support, including mentoring by veteran teachers, has a positive effect on beginning teachers’ quality of instruction, retention, and capacity to improve their students’ academic achievement.”
Progress on Diversity But How Much?
In what Ingersoll calls “something of an unheralded victory,” the public school teaching force has seen a bump in racial diversity.
Numerically, there are far more minority teachers than ever before. In 1987-88, there were about 305,200 minority public school teachers. Today, there are over 760,000.
Ingersoll says growth in the number of minority teachers over the past several decades outpaced growth in minority students and was about three times the growth rate of white teachers.
Still, a slightly more diverse teaching profession hasn’t done much to close the wide teacher-student racial gap. It’s also worth noting that the increase in teachers of color is primarily due to an uptick in the number of Hispanic teachers – 3 percent to almost 9 percent. The share of African American teachers, on the other hand, has actually declined, from 8.2 percent to 6.7 percent.
Michael Hansen and Diane Quintero of the Brookings Institution project that in the near future, the change in student demographics will evolve at a higher rate than any expected shift in teacher diversity. “This means the underrepresentation of teachers of color will likely persist or even grow in the coming decades,” he wrote in a report issued last week.
Where Instability is Concentrated
Teachers of color also have particularly high turnover rates, more so than their white counterparts. This departure rate is increasing and is driven in large part by where they work.
Newer teachers, regardless of their race, have among the highest rates of turnover of any group of teachers.
The teaching professions has always been hampered by a high attrition rate, but, as Ingersoll points out, it’s not spread out evenly. Half of all turnover occurs in 25 percent of public schools, predominantly in high-poverty urban and rural areas.
Indeed, there is an “asymmetrical shuffling of significant numbers of employed teachers from poor to not-poor schools, from high-minority to low-minority schools, and from urban to suburban schools.”
Ingersoll notes that while demographic characteristics of schools do factor in a teacher’s decision-making process about where to work, later decisions about whether to stay or depart are driven by other issues.
“What does impact their decisions, our analyses show, are school working conditions, in particular the degree of autonomy and discretion teachers are allowed over issues that arise in their classrooms, and the level of collective faculty influence over school-wide decisions that affect teachers’ jobs,” the report said.
What Happens When a Teacher Leaves Mid-Year?
U.S. teachers leave the profession at higher rates than other countries, but the debate and discussion over teacher attrition – reflected in research and in the media – focuses on educators exiting the profession before the beginning of a school year, based on the assumption that’s when turnover occurs. Little is known about teachers leaving mid-year.
A Growing Recruitment Strategy for a Diverse Teacher Workforce
“How do we help those who should be in classrooms working with students who look like them, sound like them, and will connect with them?” asks NEA President Lily Eskelsen García. An answer may rest within grow-your-own programs, which recruit local community members and help them become teachers, creating a workforce that’s reflective of the full diversity of the student population.