History and Background: Teachers
The Evolution of the Workforce
The teaching profession was once dominated by men, many of whom considered the job a stepping stone to a more prestigious career. That began to change in the 1800s, when education reformers such as Horace Mann pushed for taxpayer money to fund public schools for all children, regardless of family income. State-funded “normal schools” to train teachers were also established, and women began to be recruited to fill the ranks. Soon, teaching became a female-dominated profession, and was in fact one of the few career options women had available to them. While the number of men entering the profession has increased significantly over the past few decades, the gender imbalance has remained; currently, about 77% of teachers are women.
In 1857, teachers founded what would eventually become the National Education Association, now the largest labor union in the country, with about 3 million members. The other national teachers’ union — the American Federation of Teachers, which has roughly 1.7 million members — was founded in 1916. The national unions oversee state affiliates, which in turn oversee thousands of local unions. About 70% of teachers belong to a union, according to 2017-18 federal data. The national unions, along with some state and big-city unions, wield significant political influence through campaign donations and lobbying.
Teachers’ unions won collective bargaining rights in the 1960s, which let them negotiate for better working conditions. However, in 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that public-sector unions could no longer collect fees for collective bargaining from workers who decline to join the union, reversing a 40-year precedent in which non-members paid a slightly lower rate than members. The decision meant unions would lose out on a major source of revenue, and experts predicted unions would see a dip in membership as well, since it would be easier for workers to cut ties with their unions.
A Push Toward Accountability
To evaluate teachers, districts typically consider multiple measures, including classroom observations, student surveys, and evidence of student learning. The evaluation scores are used to provide feedback to teachers, and are sometimes linked to tenure and promotion decisions. But in 2009, the group TNTP released a report finding that virtually all teachers were rated as good or great, and districts did not consider job performance in decisions about professional development, pay, recruitment or dismissal.
In the early 2010s, most states changed their teacher evaluation systems and began to require the use of student test scores, in part due to federal incentives, as one factor. These high-stakes reforms were widely disliked by teachers, and teachers’ unions raised concerns that some factors that go into student test scores are beyond teachers’ control.
However, the passage of the federal Every Students Succeeds Act in 2015 prohibited the federal government from having a role in determining how states evaluate their teachers. The National Council on Teacher Quality found that since then, 30 states have walked back one or more of their teacher-evaluation reforms.
A Weary Workforce, and the Rise of Teacher Activism
On a national level, the number of teachers has increased significantly over the last couple decades, outpacing student enrollment. But federal data shows that every state is experiencing statewide teacher shortages in at least one subject area, most commonly special education, math, computer science and foreign languages. Rural districts also have perennial difficulties recruiting teachers.
Enrollment in teacher preparation programs has declined by a third in the last decade, and a growing number of teachers say they want to quit before they reach retirement. The two most commonly cited reasons for leaving are compensation and stress.
Research shows teachers are paid less than similarly educated professionals, and low wages were the impetus for the national “Red for Ed” movement of teacher activism. In February 2018, West Virginia teachers went on strike for almost two weeks, shuttering schools across the state. Over the next two years, teachers in at least a half-dozen states also held a statewide protest or work stoppage, and teachers in Chicago, Los Angeles and other big cities went on strike.
The public was largely supportive of teachers’ activism — especially since teachers were also calling for more school funding — and many states passed pay raises for teachers. However, the COVID-19 pandemic paused several states’ initiatives to increase salaries. The pandemic has also increased many teachers’ stress levels, leaving many to wonder what the fallout will be for the profession.
Updated June 2021.
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