By: Colette Coleman, Contributor
I'm an edtech strategist writing about the business of learning.
America is in a teacher shortage crisis, and despite all of the hand wringing and head scratching, there may be a simple solution: pay teachers more. The American Teacher Act aims to get states to do just that.
This bill, which was introduced Wednesday, proposes that all U.S. teachers should earn a salary of at least $60,000. Congresswoman Frederica S. Wilson and Congressman Jamaal Bowman are leading the charge, along with dozens of notable organizations from both sides of the aisle who are endorsing the bill, including the American Federation of Teachers, which has 1.7 million members, and the National Education Association, which has 3 million. “Teachers deserve a raise,” Congresswoman Wilson said. “Our nation's teachers have been underpaid, overworked, and deprived of resources for too long.”
According to an Education Next survey, most Americans concur that teachers should have higher salaries. Many politicians agree too, and they’re vocal about this issue—especially while on the campaign trail. The American Teacher Act could be the first step in the country putting its money where its mouth is.
With the holiday break approaching, this authorizing bill will likely need to be reintroduced in January. If it passes then, the next step will be drafting an appropriations bill, which would detail how exactly to fund the higher salaries. The current bill suggests that the money for the raises would come from grants to local education agencies and states. It includes provisions to adjust pay for inflation and the number of hours worked.
Aiming to drastically increase the number and quality of people entering the teaching profession, the bill includes not only raises, but also national campaigns on the value of teaching. These campaigns may help to attract new talent and strengthen the weak teacher pipeline.
If enacted, the bill has a good chance of making a difference. Many people don’t ever consider a career in education, and many teachers leave the profession because of the “teacher wage penalty,” a pay gap that translates to people with similar levels of education and experience making a lot—23.5%—more than teachers.
Poor pay leads to resignations and burnout; most of the teachers who stick around are exhausted, especially after the pandemic, and since many have to work second jobs to make ends meet. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics at the Institute of Education Sciences found that in the 2017-18 school year about one in five teachers had a job outside of school. Numbers would likely be much higher if supplemental in-school jobs were included. Also, given 2022’s decades-high inflation and educator salaries that haven’t kept pace, many more teachers may be moonlighting today than were a few years ago. In this context, it’s unsurprising that schools are having trouble attracting and retaining talent.
"Through under-investment in our teachers, we are now in a situation where 45% of U.S. public schools have unfilled vacancies, and with little reason to expect matters to improve without a large-scale and proactive initiative like the American Teacher Act,” said Ellen Sherratt, board president of The Teacher Salary Project, an organization that collaborated on drafting the bill. “Sixty-two percent of parents do not want their kids to become teachers, and low pay is the number one reason why.”
Low teacher compensation doesn’t only hurt educators and the teacher pipeline, it also harms students. As great or innovative as a curriculum or ed tech tool may be, nothing compares to an excellent teacher. In fact, they’re the most important determinant of student success. Given this paradigm, having under-qualified teachers and high teacher vacancy rates leads to lower student achievement, and consequently, the need to invest more, over a billion dollars a year, in remediation. If the U.S. wants to improve its educational outcomes, show that it values its teachers, and save money in the long run, the American Teacher Act may be a great place to start.
I'm an edtech strategist writing about the business of learning. I started off my career as a classroom teacher, working with students in Los Angeles, Indonesia, and New York City, and then moved out of the classroom and into edtech to work with companies on their sales, marketing, and product development. Currently, I lead strategy at Zinc Learning Labs, an edtech company focused on ending the reading crisis. I'm an alumna of Yale University and Teach For America.