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It’s Time for Virginia to Invest in the Future of the Teaching Profession

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The Virginia Department of Education (DOE), as a consequence of budget cuts, no longer keeps tab on the turnover rate of Virginia’s teachers and other crucial demographic information needed to accurately predict trends in the teacher workforce, but evidence is mounting that Virginia is not making adequate efforts to attract high-quality prospects to the teacher education pipeline.

Roughly one half of Virginia’s teachers come to Virginia from out of state, so national trends may have significant implications for our Commonwealth. Education Week recently reported that, “Massive changes to the profession, coupled with budget woes, appear to be shaking the image of teaching as a stable, engaging career. Nationwide, enrollments in university teacher-preparation programs have fallen by about 10 percent from 2004 to 2012, according to federal estimates from the U.S. Department of Education’s postsecondary data collection.” The Virginian-Pilot recently reported that, “A U.S. Education Department survey released late last year found that almost 260,000 teachers who worked in public schools in 2011-12 left the profession by the next year.”

One source of information regarding the teacher workforce in Virginia is the Virginia Retirement System. They keep track of the age of members of the “Teacher Fund” in order to make accurate actuarial projections. While this fund encompasses all local school personnel in VRS covered positions, the great majority are classroom teachers. The most recent information from VRS indicates that 24% of Virginia’s teachers are under 35, while 38% are 50 or older. It is alarming to see that 34% of Virginia’s teachers are nearing retirement.

Recent articles in the Richmond Times-Dispatch (here) and in The Virginian-Pilot (here) have documented the fact that teacher turnover is increasing in some divisions. Richmond’s turnover rate is at 13.3%, Chesterfield’s at 9.8%, and the DOE estimates that the statewide turnover rate is 10%. While this is as much attributable to low morale, SOL related stress, and rising class sizes as it is to pay; salary levels will certainly be a factor as divisions struggle to attract replacements for departing teachers. Indeed, in the 2015 Virginia Association of School Superintendents spring survey, 77% of responding school division superintendents believed that teachers have left their division due to their salary. This turnover comes at considerable expense in terms of lost investment in each teacher for recruitment and training. The Commission on Teaching and America’s Future estimated this cost for 2014 at $21,588 per teacher (here).

So, Virginia is faced with a scenario characterized by a high retirement rate, a high turnover rate, and few prospects in the teacher preparation pipeline. Virginia should respond by taking action to make the teaching profession more attractive. Offering a competitive salary is part of the answer. Where do we now stand in this regard?

First, although we are the 10th wealthiest state in the nation, our teacher salary ranks 28th, falling $6,749 below the national average. But, this ranking doesn’t tell the entire story. To gain the full picture we need to compare “teacher salaries to other professions in the same labor market who are of similar age, degree level, and hours worked.” – Is School Funding Fair? A National Report Card (here).

Researchers at Rutgers University and the Education Law Center found that, “Wages are least competitive in Missouri, North Carolina, Arizona, Georgia, Tennessee, and Virginia, where teachers make about 30% less” (here).

Indeed, the National Report Card ranks Virginia 51st among the states and DC – dead last – in teacher wage competitiveness. Similarly, the Congressional Quarterly Press ranks Virginia 50th among the states and DC in “Average Teacher Salary as a Percent of Average Annual Pay for All Workers (State).”

State averages mask the huge teacher salary disparities between Virginia divisions. The extremes will make the point. A starting teacher in Falls Church makes $48,500 while a starting teacher in Buchanan makes $30,500. Low rural and urban salaries make attracting and retaining highly qualified teachers very difficult. It is hard to attract the best and brightest, and rural and urban divisions become training grounds – their teachers leave for greener pastures as soon as they can.

In November of 2001, then Joint Legislative and Audit Review Commission Director Philip A. Leone said, “With regard to teacher salaries, the State currently lacks a clear policy or goal. … Beyond that, the report recommends that the General Assembly and Governor consider establishing a task force to consider what the State’s goal should be with regard to teacher salaries.” The state still lacks a clear policy or goal.

When a student walks into the classroom, the most important factor for how well he or she will learn is the quality of the teacher, but Virginia is doing too little to ensure the quality of that teacher. Governor McAuliffe is now preparing the biennial budget for the 2016-2018 biennium, and the General Assembly will “perfect” his submission for final passage in the session ahead. Local governments will be developing their annual budgets as well. What are some significant steps that can be taken on the state and local levels to attract and retain teachers in the face of the pending teacher shortage?

Expanding the Urban Teacher Residency Program (here) beyond Richmond will increase the number of years urban teachers stay in the classroom;

Supporting high quality professional development, including National Board for Professional Teaching Standards certificationImplementing policies to ensure that the voice of teachers is heard as decisions are madeShifting away from the teach to the test mentality that is sapping the joy from teaching and learning ; and

Narrowing the salary gap between poor and wealthy school divisions, and offering a competitive salary to Virginia’s teachers. In this regard, it is unrealistic to assume that we can move to a competitive wage in a single budget; however, it is time to make progress and to set a long term policy specifying incremental future steps.

According to the Congressional Quarterly Press’ State Fact Finder Series: State Rankings 2015 (see page117), ninety four percent of Virginia’s children attend public schools. These children are our future citizens and our future work force. The quality of the classroom teacher is the most significant in-school variable affecting their educational opportunity. Virginia should take decisive steps to ensure that tomorrow’s Virginians will have great teachers. As the National Report Card asserts, “One of the most important ways that states can ensure that teaching jobs remain desirable in the job market is to provide competitive wages.”

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