America's teacher shortage is 'a teacher respect issue,' Education Secretary says

The coronavirus pandemic ramped up pressure on teachers, many of whom had to teach classes remotely or live with the fear of catching COVID-19 while teaching in-person.

Consequently, some educators have chosen to leave the teaching profession altogether. On a recent episode of "Influencers with Andy Serwer," Education Secretary Miguel Cardona attributed recent teacher shortages in the US to relatively low pay and a lack of respect for the profession.

“I feel the teacher shortage issue is a symptom of a teacher respect issue, really,” Cardona told Yahoo Finance’s editor-in-chief. "The days of teachers having two to three jobs to make ends meet — that's unacceptable. We need to challenge that. But it still happens."

Schools across the United States report that they have an insufficient number of teachers. According to a national survey released this week by the National Education Association, 53% of public schools reported being understaffed at the beginning of the 2022-23 school year, and 60% said they had been struggling with shortages since the start of the pandemic.

According to another National Education Association survey released in January, 55% of educators say they'll leave teaching earlier than planned. That's compared to 37% in the previous August.

'When a school shuts down, the community shuts down'

Two years ago, when COVID-19 closed many schools nationwide, parents struggled to care for their children while also holding down jobs. Some health care workers stayed home with their children, straining the medical system during a time when COVID was already draining its resources.

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona meets leaders from U.S. colleges and universities to discuss challenges students are facing after the Supreme Court decision to end the nationwide constitutional right to abortion, in the Vice President's ceremonial office at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, U.S., August 8, 2022. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona meets leaders from U.S. colleges and universities to discuss challenges students are facing after the Supreme Court decision to end the nationwide constitutional right to abortion, in the Vice President's ceremonial office at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, U.S., August 8, 2022. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein

“The pandemic really gave us a moment to reflect on the importance of teachers and the importance of schools, because when a school shuts down, the community shuts down,” Cardona remarked.

Both a lack of pay and a perceived lack of respect have contributed to teacher shortages. For example, of 1,291 public school teachers, roughly 75% Texas teachers said they had considered quitting their jobs due to a lack of respect and support, according to a study released by the Charles Butt Foundation last month.

Teacher compensation also remains meager relative to other professions, according to a recent report by the Economic Policy Institute. The report found that teacher wages have been mostly flat since 1996 when adjusted for inflation — going from $1,319 to $1,348 in 2021 dollars. Meanwhile, weekly, inflation-adjusted wages of other college graduates rose from $1,564 to $2,009 over the same period.

"We need to do better,” Cardona said. “So, for me, lifting the profession or respecting the profession means you give teachers agency. We give them better working conditions.”

The evidence suggests that improved conditions for teachers ultimately improve student outcomes. For instance, a 2019 study published in Education Next, an education policy research journal, found that higher teacher pay is closely associated with superior student performance.

“We need to make sure we're compensating our educators for the work that they do and the support that they provide our students, if we take care of our educators, they're going to take care of our students better,” Cardona said.

The United States Senate confirmed Cardona as U.S. Secretary of Education in March 2021. Previously, he served as commissioner of the Connecticut State Department of Education from 2019 to 2021. He holds a doctorate in education from the University of Connecticut and started his career as a fourth grade teacher.

Dylan Croll is a reporter and researcher at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @CrollonPatrol.

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