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Americans Recognize Looming Teacher Shortage

by Coleen McMurray, Senior Staff Writer

This article contains findings from the 35th Annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools, released on Aug. 20 in Washington, D.C.

School districts across the nation are struggling in the grip of demographic crosscurrents. School enrollments are growing, and more than a million veteran teachers are approaching retirement. This dynamic is creating a vacuum in U.S. school systems, and underscores the need to find and keep qualified teachers.

The U.S. Department of Labor anticipates that job opportunities for teachers will be abundant over the next 10 years, as unusually large numbers of baby boomer teachers retire. And school districts caught in these crosscutting trends are finding creative ways to manage burgeoning enrollments. Some states have been able to negotiate a delay in the retirement age for teachers. Florida is one of the latest states to allow its school districts to extend the State's Deferred Retirement Opinion Program (DROP) for another three years, in response to the growing demand for qualified teachers.

How confident are Americans that their local school systems can obtain and keep good teachers? The recent PDK/Gallup poll* finds that a majority of Americans feel their local public school system has a hard time both getting (61%) and keeping (66%) good teachers. Public school parents as well as adults without school-aged children recognize the existence of this problem.

The acuteness of the teacher recruitment problem seems to vary by geographic region: Adults in the South (68%) and West (68%) are more likely than those in the East (54%) and Midwest (52%) to feel that their schools have a hard time getting good teachers. Even larger regional gaps are apparent when it comes to perceptions of keeping good teachers -- three in four Americans living in the South (78%) and West (78%) see this as a difficult task, compared with a little more than half of those in the East (52%) and Midwest (53%). Unfortunately, the problem is likely to get worse in the areas in which the highest levels of anxiety already exist. Department of Labor projections suggest that while some parts of the nation may actually see declines in student enrollment over the next 10 years, states in the South and West will experience large increases.

Teacher Pay

Few Americans feel that salaries for teachers in their own communities are too high (6%). The majority, 59%, believes that teacher salaries are too low, and a third say they are "just about right." Opinions are the same regardless of whether or not one is a parent with school-aged children.

Historical data on this question show that the number of Americans who believe teachers' salaries are too low has increased over time. While earlier PDK/Gallup surveys showed a much higher proportion of Americans with no opinion on the issue, even limiting the analyses to Americans with an opinion, the percentage saying that teacher salaries are too low is much higher now than in the past. For example, in 1981, 20% had no opinion on the issue, but among those having an opinion, 29% thought teacher pay was too low in their communities, compared with 59% (of those having an opinion) today.

Again, there are regional differences, which may help explain the differences in perception by region regarding the difficulty of getting and keeping good teachers. Seven in 10 Southerners say that teacher salaries in their communities are too low, and nearly that many residing in the West (66%) agree. However, those in the East (42%) and Midwest (51%) are far less likely to say that teacher pay is inadequate in their communities.

Incentives to Teach in Schools Identified as Needing Improvement?

Under the guidelines of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, which is intended to help fix the nation's failing schools, schools will need to reach or exceed state performance standards. How will struggling schools attract the quality teachers they need to turn themselves around? According to the PDK/Gallup survey, two-thirds of Americans feel that teachers should be paid higher salaries as an incentive to teach in schools targeted as "in need of improvement."

Bottom Line

School districts across the nation are grappling with ballooning enrollment and the need to attract and keep talented, qualified teachers. The nation's adults already believe that finding and keeping good teachers is a problem in their communities, but as veteran teachers retire and the full effects of NCLB are felt, the problem will only intensify.

*The findings of the survey are based on telephone interviews with a random sample of 1,011 U.S. adults, aged 18 and older, conducted from May 28 to June 18, 2003. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±3 percentage points.


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