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A Crisis of Human Capital

The year is 2030. You’re a parent to a five year old, and you’re deciding what to do about schooling for your child. You ask around about the options, and here are the answers you have been provided. Option number one, you can be your child’s teacher. You can join the local homeschooling network. This option doesn’t seem feasible to you because you work full-time and would have to hire a private homeschool teacher in order to make that work. You certainly cannot afford to do that.

Option number two is to send them to one of the private schools. These schools are seemingly bulging at the seams with average class sizes around 35, but they do provide a qualified and certified teacher to lead the learning. The only problem is that the price of tuition would absorb at least 60% of your yearly salary, and you aren’t sure how to make that work given your housing and food costs as well.

The third option is the public school in town. While still free to you and your family, you have not heard great things. You decide to go visit, though, because the first two options don’t seem realistic. When you walk in the doors to the school, you realize quickly why this isn’t the popular option. You ask the front office person who is also the school leader if you can tour the building. They say sure but that they can’t take you around because they can’t leave the phones unattended. You decide to walk around on your own.

Your first stop is at the kindergarten room, but to your surprise the kindergarten room seems full of kids who look at least ten. The adult in the room comes up to you and asks you if they can help you. You ask if they’re the teacher, and they respond, “Well, sort of.” You inquire further, and they explain that they’re a roving room monitor. They are not a certified teacher, but do love kids. They are in charge of three classrooms because the school doesn’t have enough adult monitors. They move in between rooms to check-up on the kids who are doing all of their work on the tablets in front of them. They’re supposed to be learning at a self-paced rate on the tablet.

You inquire about the kids who look much older than kindergartners, and the monitor responds that they are students who haven’t passed the kindergarten standards yet. She said that they legally can’t move on until they pass the requirements. She said she feels bad, but her job is really more of a glorified babysitter. She said she spends most of her time running between classes to make sure the kids aren’t damaging the tablets or hurting each other.

At this point, you turn around and walk out of the school, thinking, “This is an impossible decision.”

Sounds like a dystopian reality, right? Unfortunately this dystopian version of our education system might be closer to reality sooner rather than later.

While a vocal minority of parents are screaming that the problems with our schools are masks and curriculums that are too liberal, the real issue in our schools is mostly going unnoticed–a crisis of human capital. We are on the verge in our country of not having enough qualified teachers to fill our classrooms, and the pressure our communities are putting on the school systems is not helping.

Let me paint the picture with a few further details. First, what does the average teacher in our country look like? Well, we know from statistics collected by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) that 59% of our public school educators have a masters degree or higher, meaning that of the 3.3 million public school teachers 1.95 million of them have spent six or more years studying and training in the craft of teaching. On top of that amount of time, in the state of Michigan, all teachers are required to complete 150 hours of professional development every five years (or three if you are a newly certified teacher) to maintain their licensure. In other words, our educators work very hard to hone their skills as educators.

Second, according to NCES, the average teacher in the United States in 2017-2018 made $59,100 per year. We also know that when calculated based on the rate of inflation, teachers in 2017-2018 were making roughly $600 less per year in comparison to teachers in 1999-2000. Our highly qualified teachers have salaries that have not kept up with the rates of inflation, so when we look at our newer teachers whose salaries are much less than $59,100, we recognize that many are not able to thrive in their communities on their salaries.

Third, according to recent research by Launch Michigan (2021), approximately 24% of our teaching population plans on leaving the teaching profession in the next two to three years. 14% will retire and 10% will leave for other reasons. That means, in the next two to three years, we will need to replace 26,600 teachers. When we combine that with the fact that enrollment in Michigan colleges’ and universities’ teacher preparation programs have seen an overall decline in enrollment of 66% (between the years of 2008/9 and 2015/16), we are facing a significant crisis of human capital for our classrooms (Launch Michigan 2019). In fact, according to 2016 research, by 2025, we are looking at over 200,000 teaching positions across the United States that we will not be able to fill with qualified teachers (Carver-Thomas, Darling-Hammond, and Sutcher).

Lastly, we know that the real impact of this crisis is on our students. We know that ultimately the higher teacher turnover is in a school, the lower students score in areas of math and reading (Ronfeldt, Lankford, Loeb, and Wyckoff 2011). We also know that the higher a teacher’s stress level, the higher the stress level of our students, which ultimately impacts their own social emotional health (Oberle and Schonert-Reichl 2016). The ones paying the price for this crisis in education are not only the adults in our school buildings but our children as well.

Why is this crisis occurring? Well, we only need to look at the stories in our news right now–a teacher being harassed and bullied because of one book they chose to put on their Amazon Wish List–one book that may have represented a worldview that conflicted with a segment of our parent population–, superintendents so worried about their own safety and that of their families that they have to have security or choose to move their families away from the districts in which they serve, school board members who choose to resign immediately because of the impacts of the stress they are experiencing on their health. Unfortunately, none of these situations is unique or isolated right now. They are happening across our country, and they are amplifying messages that have caused teachers to burnout up to this point.

Teachers report burning out primarily because of workplace stress and a lack of overall respect for the profession (Launch Michigan 2021). The workload of our teachers was already too heavy prior to our current culture wars, but when you add parent harassment, angry and belligerent emails, and media stories that highlight angry mobs shouting down school board members to our teachers’ already growing concerns for the overall well-being of children in their classrooms, it is just too much.

We cannot keep adding fuel to this crisis. Our education system simply cannot sustain the pressure. I know some will suggest that our education system falling apart is what needs to happen, that we need to blow everything up and rebuild. Here’s the problem, though. We cannot rebuild if we do not have the teachers. We cannot educate our children without the qualified and passionate adults who know how to teach our children how to read, write, think critically, and explore the world through the lenses of math, science, and history.

So stop it. Before it’s too late for our children.


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