When Florida’s legislators think about how to address the state’s worsening shortage of K-12 teachers, they should keep this in mind:
I teach physics courses at FSU for students majoring in disciplines like engineering, computer science, math, physics and biology, and I often talk with them about teaching careers. When I do so, my students most frequently say that their own high school teachers told them that teaching in Florida is a terrible career. As a result, almost none of my students will even consider teaching.
How did teachers in our K-12 schools get so angry? During the last decade, there have been profound changes in the conditions under which Florida’s teachers work. Annual evaluations of teachers now incorporate test scores posted by their students. However, in a course for which a statewide exam is not given, like Honors Physics, the test score component of the teacher’s evaluation can be based on student test scores in different subjects like reading or on broader measures like the school grade. That is, it can have nothing to do with how well a teacher’s students learned physics.
Job security for teachers has been reduced. The automatic salary increases for earning graduate degrees in education and for persevering in the profession that were in place for decades were curtailed or eliminated.
For teachers, the only things that remain as they were before are the long hours and challenges of dealing with children from all kinds of difficult backgrounds.
In place of the traditional financial and job security benefits of teaching, in 2015 the Florida Legislature enacted the Best and Brightest Teacher Scholarship Program, which provided sizable bonuses (about $7,000 this year) to teachers who had earned high scores on the SAT or ACT college placement exams when they themselves were in high school, years or even decades before. The Best and Brightest program threw gasoline on the hot coals of teacher discontent in Florida.
So what can be done to make the teaching profession attractive again? Salaries are certainly an issue. Florida’s teacher salaries are exceptionally low compared to the national average, and are lower than some other states in the southeastern US. This problem is even more severe in math and science, where new bachelor’s degree grads in computer science, engineering, math and physics can earn starting salaries of $50,000 or more.
But the first step for policy-makers must be to lower the temperature in the teachers’ workplaces – our schools. Districts should be given more freedom to work out compensation and evaluation issues with their own teachers, giving these teachers a real seat at the table again.
If our teachers begin to feel as though they are once again full partners in the education of their students, maybe they will be able to tell their own best and brightest students that teaching is a profession worth considering.