The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

US students need well-paid teachers to rebuild what’s been lost

FILE – In this March 8, 2017 file photo, high school teacher Natalie O’Brien, center, hands out papers during a civics class called “We the People,” at North Smithfield High School in North Smithfield, R.I. (AP Photo/Steven Senne, File)

Students continue to wrestle with the impact of disrupted learning time from the pandemic. Yet despite generations of research proving that teacher quality is the single most important school-based factor in student outcomes, our country continues to allow teacher shortages — which we know are most persistent and acute in schools and districts hit hardest by the pandemic.

There’s not a moment to lose to recruit, support and retain more teachers. One simple action, which President Biden named during his State of the Union Address, could go a long way: Give public school teachers a long-overdue raise. It’s a reform that will benefit not just teachers but students as well.

Members of Congress looking to boost student performance — and combat pandemic-inflicted learning loss — should support new proposals to make teaching a more economically viable profession. A bipartisan group of governors has done just that and now it’s time for federal policymakers to act.

Inflation-adjusted wages for teachers have remained mostly flat since 1996, according to a 2022 Economic Policy Institute assessment. It’s no wonder the proportion of college graduates that go into teaching is at a 50-year low. Even accounting for teachers’ benefits packages, they make 14 percent less than other college graduates.

The organization I lead, Teach For America, has 33 years of experience attracting exceptional, equity-oriented leaders early in their careers to teach in rural and urban classrooms. Our analysis points to low pay among the top reasons why young people don’t consider a teaching career. Members of Gen Z want to make a meaningful difference, but they also prioritize financial stability and rightly don’t view teaching as a way to achieve it.

For current teachers, low pay is a major barrier to job satisfaction and retention. In a recent survey by the Teacher Salary Project of more than 1,000 teachers — more than half of whom received formal recognition for their achievements in the classroom — just 1 in 5 teachers said their pay was high enough to keep them in the classroom for the medium to long term. More than 80 percent reported currently or previously working another job while teaching. That’s unacceptable.

Our country can change this. Rep. Frederica Wilson’s (D-Fla.) American Teacher Act — and a similar bill expected from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — would set a minimum teacher salary of $60,000 as a first step in moving toward livable, competitive wages for all teachers.

As we explore these options, we should focus especially on recruiting and retaining teachers in under-resourced schools. There is promising legislation in Congress that does just that: Sen. Cory Booker’s (D-N.J.) RAISE Act would make teachers eligible for up to $15,000 in refundable tax credits. First-year teachers could access the credits right away, and a sliding scale would provide higher credits for those working in schools with the highest poverty levels.

At Teach For America, we have provided $5,000 stipends for incoming corps members in 2022 and 2023, with an additional $5,000 for those who received a Pell Grant or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. This is on top of grants and loans we’ve been offering to incoming corps members for more than a decade to support them through emergencies, hardship or the transition to the first day of school. In 2022, all of this financial support for corps members totaled more than $14 million.

Boosting teacher compensation helps students as well. Research dating back to the early 1980s shows a correlation between increasing teacher pay and improving student performance. As young people work to get back on track after years of inconsistent schooling, it’s critical we have the best educators in schools.

If we look through the eyes of today’s college graduate — driven to have an impact on what matters most in the world and understanding that quality education for all children is a foundational issue, yet carrying average student loan debt close to the average starting teacher salary of $42,000 — it’s easy to see why the teaching profession is the road not taken.

Offering student loan forgiveness to teachers — especially those in high-need districts or understaffed schools — is another smart step toward making education a more viable career path. And because student loan debt is held disproportionately by people of color, this will help establish a more racially and ethnically diverse teaching workforce, something we know benefits all students and especially students of color. Once again, national legislation could help.

 Another proposal by Booker, the STRIVE Act, would provide student loan relief to teachers in schools serving low-income communities as soon as they enter the classroom. We have proof this works: A loan forgiveness program in Florida helped improve retention in hard-to-staff subjects.

State and local governments and community leaders have a role to play as well. Several states, with both Democratic and Republican governors, and school districts have already raised teacher salaries or are proposing a pay boost this year. And a number of community-based programs now help educators find affordable housing. 

In Baltimore, for example, Brown Stone Living, run by three Teach For America alumnae, pairs teachers with high-quality rental properties they can afford. Some cities and states provide teachers with reduced interest rates or funding to purchase a home. School districts in West Virginia and California have even built housing specifically for teachers.

Higher salaries, student loan relief and affordable housing are three immediate ways to attract additional qualified candidates to the teaching profession and keep them in schools where they can have the most impact on and for students. They’re also important steps toward putting our country’s kids on the path to academic and lifelong success.

Elisa Villanueva Beard is the CEO of Teach For America. 

Tags Bernie Sanders Biden Coronavirus Cory Booker COVID-19 Frederica Wilson pandemic effect on learning Politics of the United States Student loan forgiveness Teach For America teacher pay

Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

More Education News

See All
See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video