Home > Essays > Shelby County TN’s Teacher Shortage No Mystery: Underfunded Schools + Test-Driven Reform + Poverty

Shelby County TN’s Teacher Shortage No Mystery: Underfunded Schools + Test-Driven Reform + Poverty

Chalkbeat writer Samantha West did an admirable job of writing about the shortage of 227 teachers in Shelby County TN without mentioning the huge elephant in the room: TN is ranked 43 in the nation in per pupil spending on public schools and Shelby County is suing the State because it’s funding formula shortchanges them, because the test-driven reform has taken the joy out of teaching, or the schools face not only the challenge of Covid but the unrelenting challenges associated with poverty. Ms. West reported on a recent school board meeting where Yolanda Martin, the Personnel Administrator for the district, offered an explanation for the departures and the steps the district was taking to address the problem:

The most frequent reason teachers gave in exit surveys, Martin said, was pursuing a new job opportunity, though many former employees gave no reason for leaving, according to district data.

“What we do know is this is a laborer’s market,”Martin said, noting the district is continuing to prioritize offering incentives to help retain staff and keep them from seeking employment elsewhere.

“[The data] pretty much mirrors what we’ve seen in the past, but obviously not to this magnitude right now,” Martin said. “So we can suspect what that could be, but based on the data we have, these are the main indicators as of now.”

To retain remaining educators, the district offers ongoing professional development, annual 2% raises, and new teacher induction programs, among many other tactics. Using data, Martin said the district also tracks which schools have the hardest time keeping teachers so they can find ways to offer more support to school staff and leaders.

I understand why Ms. Martin does not provide what everyone knows is the real reason: there are few teachers who can resist moving to a fully resourced school that pays them a much higher salary to teach the content they love to teach in a way they want to teach it without having to worry about how the students will do on a standardized test.

Well heeled districts that enroll children of affluent well educated parents pay teachers well, offer good benefits, and offer world-class opportunities for professional growth.

Well heeled districts that enroll children of affluent well educated parents do not teach-to-the test. They don’t have to because the children enter school ready to learn and do not experience the life-altering stress that children raised in poverty encounter on a daily basis. 

Well heeled districts that enroll children of affluent well educated parents are always seeking good teachers and, from all reports, are experiencing burnout and turnover now— albeit on a smaller scale than districts like Shelby County that serve children raised in poverty. The difference is that well heeled districts that enroll children of affluent well educated parents can recruit with relative ease. 

And here’s what is especially sad: because this is “a laborer’s market” in ALL career areas, and because teaching is less and less perceived as a viable career choice, fewer and fewer college students are pursuing education as a career. As long as test scores are seen as the focal point of teaching and rabid conservative parents monitor each and every lesson taught in social studies the situation will not improve…. especially for those underfunded districts serving children raised in poverty. 

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