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Lesson 3.1

Who Teaches, and Why?

Here’s what 4 out of 5 elementary grade teachers have in common, still.

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Attracting talented people to the teaching profession is difficult in California.

This lesson opens our chapter about teachers with the basics: who teaches?

Who teaches? Mostly women.

It probably won't surprise you to hear that 3/4 of public school teachers in America are women. The ratio varies with grade level. In elementary grades, nearly nine out of every ten teachers is a woman, with an even higher fraction in the earliest grades. In high schools, the ratio is lower — about 2/3 of teachers are women.

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) keeps track of national trends in the teaching workforce. Changes have been very gradual. Overall, eight out of ten teachers are white, and white women make up about half of the teaching force in America. In California, the picture isn't all that different — nearly half (45%) of teachers in public schools are white women. (For comparison, about 10% of students in California public schools are white girls.)

Nearly 90% of teachers in elementary grades are women

The gender skew in teaching has deep historical roots. Before the civil rights era, American culture and policies discouraged or forbid women from working in most job categories other than teaching and nursing. In 1964, more than half of working women with college degrees were teachers. As other job categories gradually opened to women, teaching lost its privileged access to college graduates. By 1996, the teaching profession's share of employment for female college graduates had fallen to 15%.

It's not just a trend in California, either. Across the country, most teachers are white, and it's not changing quickly.

The lack of diversity in the teaching profession is bad for kids. There is evidence that students benefit from having teachers of diverse backgrounds. In particular, black male students tend to do better in school when they have at least one black male teacher.

Self-selection plays an important role in the teaching workforce. American culture doesn't routinely suggest to men that teaching can be a good career fit for them. It's not an easy impression to change, and teaching isn't the only profession facing this challenge. In 1970, less than 3% of registered nurses were men; as of 2022, the percentage remained stuck at 12%.

Teaching is a choice

K-12 education is labor-intensive and therefore expensive. Staff-related costs (wages and benefits) are by far the largest category of expense in the school system.

Teacher pay has merely kept pace with inflation.

As the US economy has grown more productive, wages for jobs requiring a college degree have risen at about twice the rate of inflation. The average teacher's salary, which has merely kept pace with inflation in the last 50 years, has failed to keep up with this trend.

There's much more to know about teacher compensation, which will be further explored in Ed100 Lesson 3.8 (Teacher Pay) and Lesson 3.11 (Teacher Pensions). For now, the big point is that pay for teachers isn't high enough to be much of a force for diversifying the profession or sustaining the quality of future educators.

Is teaching attracting fewer top students?

Nobody expects to get rich as a teacher. Pay isn't the only thing that matters to talented young people as they choose a profession, luckily. But it does matter, and not just for rent and college loans. As young people make choices about their future career, the relative attractiveness of pay contributes to the reputation of the profession. Over time, teacher pay has tended to grow more slowly than pay in other work. It's a contributing factor to a real problem pointed out in a study by McKinsey in 2010: "The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers." …and the strongest students don't tend to choose to become teachers.

Research by ACT in 2015 confirmed this conclusion. Many high school students take the ACT exam as part of the process of applying for college. Along with the exam, students were asked to fill out a survey indicating their interest in various college majors. "Interest among ACT-tested graduates in becoming educators continues to decline at an alarming rate," reported ACT in its report, 2015 Conditions of Future Educators. "Students interested in education have lower-than-average achievement levels, particularly in STEM areas."

In 2022, a study by a team of researchers at the Annenberg School at Brown University again found a serious reason for concern: a precipitous and broad decline in overall interest in a teaching career:

Perceptions of teacher prestige have fallen between 20% and 47% in the last decade to be at or near the lowest levels recorded over the last half century. Interest in the teaching profession among high school seniors and college freshman has fallen 50% since the 1990s, and 38% since 2010, reaching the lowest level in the last 50 years. The number of new entrants into the profession has fallen by roughly one third over the last decade, and the proportion of college graduates that go into teaching is at a 50-year low. Teachers’ job satisfaction is also at the lowest level in five decades, with the percent of teachers who feel the stress of their job is worth it dropping from 81% to 42% in the last 15 years.

Do teachers' qualifications and 'smarts' matter?

Does it actually matter whether teachers have strong academic qualifications and general ability? California pointedly doesn't collect the necessary data to associate teachers with student outcomes, but the answer is obvious.

Big-picture economic research suggests that across the globe, students tend to have higher reading and math skills when their teachers have better cognitive skills in literacy and numeracy, and the difference drives the economic future of states and nations. In a study of teachers and students in the U.S., celebrated economic researcher Raj Chetty demonstrated patterns of strong connection between the quality of teachers and the learning outcomes of students. On a smaller scale, research from Missouri also confirmed the finding, at least for mathematics: Better-scoring teachers deliver better-scoring students.

How to get great teachers. Maybe even men.

If you want brilliant people to become teachers, ask them. They might say yes. The power of asking is a core part of the recruiting success of Teach for America, a non-profit organization that actively encourages talented people to enter the teaching profession.

Asking is also a key strategy of the EnCorps STEM teachers program, which recruits experienced STEM Experts to become teacher-leaders serving high-need students. If you're wondering what would be involved in making a career switch, have a look at

The United States could learn a lot from other countries about how to make teaching a highly sought-after profession. A 2015 report by the Center on International Education Benchmarking, How High-Performing Systems Shape Teaching Quality Around the World, examines the recruitment and selection practices in five countries with a reputation for good teaching. In those countries, the researchers report that money and status count:

"Because teaching is generally a well-respected and well-paid profession that many individuals want to join, top-performing education systems have an abundance of candidates from which to choose."

The selection process for teachers in these countries extends beyond academic signals. These countries select for a variety of skills and personal qualities, such as:

  • Ability to work well with children and collaborate with adults.
  • Personal and communication skills.
  • Conceptual, analytic, and problem-solving abilities.

The next lesson in this chapter explains California's systems for preparing and certifying teachers.

Last Updated: October, 2023


Which ONE of the following statements about the teaching profession in the US is true?

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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Carol Kocivar March 24, 2023 at 5:02 pm
The 2023 California Legislative Analyst overview of teacher workforce issues.
This contains an analysis of teacher shortages and efforts by California to address this.
Research cites various factors impacting a teacher’s desire to leave, including lack of access to effective induction programs, lack of support by administrators and parents, dissatisfaction with current salary levels, and a high prevalence of student misbehavior/tardiness.

user avatar
Carol Kocivar March 24, 2023 at 5:02 pm
user avatar
Carol Kocivar October 18, 2022 at 3:36 pm
The National Council on Teacher Quality: "Eight ways states can act now to retain an effective, diverse teacher workforce"
One interesting finding:
2. Maintain high standards for entry and evaluate impact: Teaching is a rewarding and demanding job. Making it easier to enter the classroom belies the challenges that teachers will face once there. Teachers who hold emergency or alternative licenses are more likely to leave teaching, so short-term fixes are not long-term gains. Moreover, dropping standards like licensure tests is often proffered as a step to diversify the teacher workforce, but a recent RAND survey found that teachers of color did not believe this would be an effective strategy.,-diverse-teacher-workforce
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder September 3, 2022 at 5:07 am
If it seems like there's always a teacher shortage in the news, part of the reason might be that the labor market for teachers is very uneven. In 2022 EdSource took a journalist's approach to the issue to describe where the shortages are happening and why it matters. Read the article and listen to the podcast.
user avatar
NICK JUZZ July 21, 2023 at 9:44 am
The point is, nobody can imagine is to deal with disrespectful students for example, and don't forget that education must tend to be inclusive, so teachers must be experts in dealing with disorders such as: Asperger's, anxiety, attention deficit or learning barriers, Down syndrome, etc.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder June 25, 2022 at 11:45 am
The bureau of labor statistics (BLS) collects data about open job listings, which can help identify shortages in the talent pipeline for various parts of the economy. In 2021 and 2022 the BLS data pointed to a growing
user avatar
Carol Kocivar May 15, 2022 at 3:23 pm
How to Address. The teacher shortage before the well runs dry. State and federal legislators must enact measures to alleviate the conditions causing teachers to quit. The public must demand action from legislators to stop the bleeding in our education system.
user avatar
Admin December 15, 2021 at 1:23 pm
Which states have the best data systems and policies to support a continuous supply of well-prepared teachers? December 2021 data from NCTQ awards California a score of 2.5 out of 6. Only Colorado earns the top score. Read NCTQ Report.
user avatar
Selisa Loeza October 22, 2021 at 10:45 pm
Add in pressures, expectations and changes during the pandemic, the numbers may continue to dwindle in attracting more teachers.
user avatar
Misha Chellam November 27, 2020 at 9:26 pm
This might get answered later but: I've heard in South Korea you can only teach if you finish in the top third of your class. Have there been any discussions about what it would take to implement such a rule in California schools? (presumably more money available to pay teachers.. but what else would need to change?)
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder July 27, 2023 at 11:14 pm
Regarding South Korea: I have not found evidence of a "top third of the class" rule, but it is certainly true that South Korea is a country that invests in teachers. Teaching is a high-status job in the country and it is far ahead of California in pushing for students to have access to forward-looking learning. (See this article about computer science. In California, such a rule would not be feasible because few college students from the top of their class pursue work in public education.
user avatar
Jamie Kiffel-Alcheh October 30, 2019 at 9:33 pm
Here in Los Angeles, financial considerations are critical. The cost of living here is astronomical. I graduated at the top of my class from a top college. I am the child of educators who are children of educators. I am well equipped to teach, and interested. But becoming a teacher would mean financial ruin unless my husband were a high earner, or we had a magnificent inheritance.
user avatar
Caryn November 4, 2019 at 9:04 am
Hi Jamie, thanks for your comment. I agree, people shouldn't need to choose between the teaching profession and financial stability. If we want high-quality educators in California, we need to be intentional about promoting increased pay and prestige. How would you do that in your district?
user avatar
Jamie Kiffel-Alcheh October 30, 2019 at 9:33 pm
Here in Los Angeles, financial considerations are critical. The cost of living here is astronomical. I graduated at the top of my class from a top college. I am the child of educators who are children of educators. I am well equipped to teach, and interested. But becoming a teacher would mean financial ruin unless my husband were a high earner, or we had a magnificent inheritance.
user avatar
francisco molina July 20, 2019 at 4:12 am
Los administradores sea de la escuela o del distrito, suelen usar este tema para explicar el exito o fracaso bajo su mando, suelen decir que los maestros calificados o acreditados o certificados escasean o piden mas del presupesto que les ofrecen. o que se ven en la necesidad de contratar sin estas acreditaciones. sin embargo hay muchos excelentes maestros incluso sin titulos. lo que indica que para todo pueden haber excepciones exitosas, y muchas veces se ofende a los maesros gratuitamente pues hacen creer que todo pasa por los maestros que tienen y no pueden hacer nada mas. Esto seria cierto si toda una clase llegase a fallar, lo que tampoco ocurre, portanto esto es un poco mas complejo que asignarle toda la responsabilidad a un determinado maestro o maestra.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder August 21, 2017 at 5:51 pm
New data from the US Department of Education shows little change in the teaching workforce in America: it remains mostly white women. EdWeek summarizes:
user avatar
Carol Kocivar February 14, 2017 at 5:40 pm
The Learning Policy Institute offers suggestions on how to address the teacher shortage.
1." Offer service scholarships or loan forgiveness programs that cover the cost of tuition and living expenses to teacher candidates who commit to teach in high-need fields and locations."

2. "Boost the supply of teachers entering shortage fields and locations through high-retention teacher preparation programs completed in 1 year at the postbaccalaureate level, such as teacher residency models."

3. "Eliminate barriers to re-entry for retired teachers in shortage fields or postpone their exit."

Read the report here:
user avatar
Carol Kocivar July 14, 2016 at 7:46 pm
ACT's National Condition of Future Educators 2015 Report continues disturbing news about our future teachers.
Key Findings
1. "Interest among ACT-tested graduates in becoming educators continues to decline at an alarming rate. Of the more than 1.9 million students who took the ACT in 2015, fewer than 88,000 students indicated an interest in education majors or professions."
2. "Students interested in education have lower-than- average achievement levels, particularly in STEM areas."
3."Interest in pursuing an education career is low among males."
4. "In general, there is a lack of diversity among students interested in education. "
Read the full report:
user avatar
Carol Kocivar January 29, 2016 at 2:26 pm
Want to take a closer look at the teacher shortage in your county?
The Learning Policy Institute provides an interactive map where you can check out teacher shortage indicators.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar January 28, 2016 at 9:20 am
Add this to your list of programs to watch:
Videos on the Emerging California Teacher Shortage
From PACE--Policy Analysis of California Education
New evidence on the scale of California’s emerging teacher shortage
New approaches to teacher recruitment, preparation, and retention
user avatar
riledup2010 November 15, 2015 at 7:04 pm
It's a shame that not all teachers choose to be teachers because it's their passion. Many people become teachers because they can basically become teachers no matter what their degree is in. Teaching seems to be a good option when you are out of options. Given the state of California's financial support of education, I cant imagine that we will ever recruit the most qualified people to teach our children.
user avatar
Pamela Wright April 16, 2018 at 2:56 am
What percent of teachers choose to become teachers because it is their passion or they perceive a sense of calling to the profession?
user avatar
hetds June 15, 2015 at 7:17 am
How does one determine the "best" teacher candidates?
Subject matter experts are all too often the poorest of teachers since they are too far away knowledge-wise from their students. They lack patience and empathy.
Visit Lev Vygotsky and learn about the ZOPED.
Why should a Kindergarten teacher have to pass College Algebra before being credentialed?
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder June 21, 2015 at 12:08 am
Hi, Hetds. You can add links to your comments, for example to provide readers with easier access to information about Lev Vygotsky. The topic of teacher credentials is explored in Lesson 3.3.
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ptalisa April 28, 2015 at 5:50 pm
Men are scared because kids can blame them for stuff they didn't do. I have seen this happen to 2 men teachers and guess what after it hit the paper and the police checked it all out and found the men didn't do wrong. No parents wanted their kids in the class. So if their was a way to teach the men teachers who to protect them self I think more would do it
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Tay Fe April 23, 2015 at 2:47 pm
Many teachers complete the educational requirements but are not able to sign a contract. These teachers remain under a preliminary credential until the complete a beginning teacher induction program (BTSA) which if they do not have students they are not able to apply and receive a regular credential. The BTSA induction program needs to be rethought,
user avatar
digalameda April 5, 2015 at 12:49 pm
Becoming a teacher is much more difficult than you think and it is literally a series of hoops to jump through. As I went through my credential program, the more intelligent and competent students found other jobs while the less competent stuck it out to get their credential. At times people think "if can't do something else, I can always teach". I asked myself several times "is this person really going to be a teacher?"

The best teachers I have come across are not the ones fresh out of college but the ones who are on their second or third career with real career experience!
user avatar
hetds June 15, 2015 at 7:18 am
Yes! Love for teaching is the key!
user avatar
jenzteam February 27, 2015 at 10:34 am
Can't answer this one. Perhaps men are more motivated to be a higher wage earner? Women tend to be more nurturing, however just like the nursing profession this has shifted over the years. Male teachers should be recruited heavily as there are so many boys who lack a father figure.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder January 29, 2015 at 12:04 am
While there is plenty of reason to worry about whether top students find teaching an attractive profession, there is also reason to hope that the specific claim that "teachers come disproportionately from the bottom third of college graduates" may turn out to be a #myth. points to an informative working paper from Goldhaber and Walch at the University of Washington. Using a combination of statistical sources, they describe a much more nuanced picture of the dynamics of the teaching population.
user avatar
CM January 19, 2015 at 2:40 pm
One idea to explore might be: Invite successful professionals from various walks of life to teach in classrooms. Many universities do that. Try that in high schools too.
user avatar
hetds June 15, 2015 at 7:19 am
Georgia recruited Math. Teachers from Germany to teach in hS.

They lasted one year!

Not everyone can or should teach.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder June 20, 2015 at 11:59 pm
Hi, Hetds -- if you have a link to information about Georgia's program, please add it to your comment. Thanks!
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