Solve K12 Teacher Shortages and Impoverished Adjuncts at the Same Time

I hope that US education is in a time of transition. Tenure for college professors was never meant (or built) to be a long-term program. It was part of a push to find ways to coax people into the classroom and then it was later rationalized as an essential part of truly free academic study — after all, how could an academic do innovative research if they don’t have job security till death?

But now the system might have come to a head. All while tuition and student debt is soaring, Universities are making less room for well paid professors. In some cases expensive tenure track positions are being replaced by inexpensive, poorly paid adjunct teaching positions even when the tenure position opens up at retirements.

Today is arguably the worst time to get a PhD. The academic job market is horrible across the board. Not only is the competition to get into grad school higher than it has ever been, once students get there PhD they are fighting for very few openings. So, many people have to settle by either taking poorly paid adjunct teaching positions — little pay, little job security — or by retraining themselves for some new job entirely. Most people will be lucky to get something at least tangentially related to their field of study.

Some disciplines are considerably worse than others. The humanities are notoriously difficult and arguably getting worse as state legislators continue to crack down on “wasteful” departments. But even the best-off fields have grim outcomes. I study Neuroscience and it has always been my plan to go to graduate school and pursue a PhD. But I’m now unsure. Unless you go to the top graduate programs, which I am not quite capable of having a chance of getting into, you have a better chance ending up working in tech than working in research. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve met PhD’s who end up going to coding bootcamps and retraining themselves for software development or data science. And that is all despite the billions of dollars that has recently been poured into the field through Obama’s Brain Initiative.

The K12 job market has almost the opposite problem. Despite there being many people capable of becoming teachers (a good deal of evidence shows that teaching isn’t seeing a labor shortage in the traditional sense), urban and rural school districts continually begin the school year with massive shortages. Many of these open positions will be filled by long-term substitute teachers, and some won’t be filled at all. Just last year, Chicago’s public school district started the year with a shortage of ~500 positions, and Nashville began the year with a shortage of ~250.

The problem is radically different region-to-region. Some states exacerbate their shortages by making the certification processes long and very costly (looking at you Illinois and California). And then on the other hand, there are plenty of YIMBY states like Tennessee that still face the issue. They make certification cheap and relatively easy, working with programs like Relay that can affordably fast track the process, but they still have shortages in many districts.

So here’s the proposal. Cut out all regulatory and educational barriers for anyone with a PhD or non-professional master’s degree who wants to teach K12 in underserved school districts. Make it as easy as turning in a transcript and passing a background check by either building fast tracks around the prohibitively irritating and costly certification and licensing process, or, even better, waive the certification/licensing process altogether for qualified candidates. It’d be a small and cheap policy proposal that could solve parts of our current education shortages. It’d also give some much needed security to the thousands of current graduate students who will not be able to land the few remaining tenure track positions. And though K12 teachers, I believe, are underpaid, the median US High School teacher makes about $59,000 a year which is still around 3 times the pay of the average adjunct and about the same as an entry level data analyst (a go-to retraining choice for many in STEM).

If this is done right, it could also have some helpful downstream effects. Mainly, if adjuncts and teaching assistants widely take advantage of the system and become K12 teachers, the extra competition could create shortages in higher education which may be able push more Universities to fairly pay non-tenure track faculty (not that they shouldn’t just do this in the first place).

This could also run along with greater pushes for citizen science and open science. If I were a PhD and I was unable to land a tenure track research position, I must admit, I think I would be disappointed with just teaching K12. But I think a lot of that comes along with some feeling that qualified people can’t contribute to academic fields if they don’t work entirely in research. Though that may be true for some very costly fields, there’s no reason that K12 teachers can’t continue to use their free time and summer break to contribute to their respective fields of research. We mainly just need to normalize that process and figure out more ways to enable the part-time scientist to be part of the conversation. I am going to write another post on some ideas for that later.

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