A pay increase is just the start to making the teaching profession more attractive
By Cindy Landrum
After paying the average rent on a one-bedroom apartment in Greenville outside of downtown, the operating costs of a paid-for vehicle, utilities, and food to prepare at home, and making an average student loan payment, first-year teachers in Greenville County last year would have had $28 a month left from their paycheck.
Considering circumstances such as these, it’s not a surprise that many Greenville teachers have sought out second and third jobs to be able to sock away in case of an unexpected expense, go out on a date, or to pay for a doctor’s visit. Keep in mind that teachers in Greenville County were among the highest paid teachers in the state.
This year, teachers will get a bump in pay, part of an effort by state lawmakers and local school officials to try to slow the exodus of teachers from South Carolina classrooms. State lawmakers passed a budget that gives all teachers at least a 4 percent pay raise. Meanwhile, in Greenville County, no teacher will be paid less than $40,000—the highest starting salary in the state.
But bigger reforms promised by state lawmakers, such as overhauling South Carolina’s convoluted education funding system and revamping the state’s accountability over long-failing schools and districts, will have to wait until next year.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, said Ansel Sanders, president and CEO of Public Education Partners.
“I think the momentum behind education and the bill was positive,” he said. “Passing it to the next session is not necessarily a bad thing. What it shows is they want to do this right. My worry, though, is the momentum will be hard to sustain and we’re going into an election year.”
Leaving the profession
When it comes to teachers in South Carolina, it’s clear the numbers aren’t working.
New teachers are quitting the profession in greater numbers, more veteran teachers are retiring, and fewer people are pursuing education degrees at the state’s teacher colleges. That exodus led to more than 600 vacant teaching positions across the state when the 2018 school year started, a figure that grew more than a third in two years, according to the latest Winthrop University’s Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention, and Advancement teacher supply and demand report.
“We are on a cliff,” says George Petersen, founding dean of the Clemson University College of Education. “The idea of a precipitous and steep decline in the number of people interested in becoming teachers is problematic.”
About 7,300 teachers left their classrooms in 2018, an increase of 10 percent compared to 2017. The overwhelming majority—more than 5,300 in all—no longer teach in South Carolina public schools.
One in four first-year teachers left the classroom after just one year. Nearly half of all teachers who quit last year before retirement age had been in the classroom for five years or less. More veteran teachers are leaving, too, something Greenville County Schools Superintendent W. Burke Royster says is due to the end of a program that allowed retirement-age state employees to continue to work and collect paychecks at the same time as their pension checks.
Along with that, the number of South Carolina students who completed a teacher education program has fallen by 32 percent since 2013. The shortage is especially acute in math, science, foreign languages, special education, and certain career and technology areas. Of the 400 candidates that attended Greenville County Schools’ big teacher recruitment event in March, only four were prospective math teachers.
“We could hire every math teacher produced in the state and still not have enough to fill all of our positions,” Royster said.
Greenwood District 51 Superintendent Dr. Fay Sprouse expresses a similar sentiment, saying, “I’ve been in education for 35 years and this is the worst it has ever been.”
This isn’t the first time South Carolina has had trouble getting enough teachers in recent memory. In the early 1970s, Greenville County Schools had a teacher turnover rate of nearly 30 percent. The problem corrected itself over time, he said, especially after the Education Improvement Act was passed and resulted in a big boost in teacher salaries.
“The single greatest relief would be to address the salary disparity,” Royster says. “The state budget includes a 4 percent raise, but it doesn’t need to be, ‘That’s it and we’re done.”
What are the answers?
While increasing pay is a good first step, Sanders says there’s no single solution to solving the teacher shortage.
“People get into teaching because they have a service heart, a love of kids, and a sense of having something to contribute. The sense of service is unique to teaching and is still there,” he says. “But we’ve seen other aspects erode over time—compensation, an increase in the reliance on standardized testing that has affected autonomy and creativity in the classroom, the way society looks at the profession versus other professions. The shortage is a symptom of that.”
Petersen said with so many teachers leaving the profession, especially those with less than five years’ experience, school districts and universities need to ask whether they did enough to prepare them for the job.
“Research has shown the more comprehensive the preparation of a teacher is, the likelihood of them staying in the profession is greater,” Petersen said. That’s why Clemson, in collaboration with seven Upstate school districts, recently launched a residency program.
The program is designed to prepare and retain classroom-ready teachers. Students in the program emerge after five years with both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in education as well as an extended, year-long student teaching experience with a master teacher.
Petersen says research shows that between 70 and 90 percent of those teachers stay five years or more and that they are more effective teachers by their third year of teaching. The first cohort had 23 students. Eventually, Petersen thinks about half of Clemson’s education majors will opt for the residency program.
“It’s expensive, but so is replacing a teacher,” he said.
On another front, a group of educators and business leaders working on teacher recruitment and retention through Ten at the Top’s Education Spectrum wants to develop an incentive package to attract top talent to the Upstate, including employee discount, affordable housing, professional development, degree advancement, loan forgiveness, and other financial incentives. They will push for policies that allow colleges and universities to develop alternative certification programs.
Another group is focusing on elevating the teaching profession in the eyes of the public, as well as high school and middle school students.
While Petersen says the teacher shortage is concerning, it also provides opportunities to innovate.
“This shortage in the very near future will force us to think and act outside the box,” he said. “It’s like in business: when chaos hits, great ideas rise to the top.”