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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 in sufficient numbers has become difficult in California. Part of the challenge is demographic.

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) regularly surveys the demographics of teachers. Women comprise more than 80% of the teaching workforce in elementary grades and more than half of it in secondary grades. Less than one in five elementary-grade teachers is a man. This ratio has remained stable for generations.

Over 80% of teachers in elementary grades are women

In 1964, over half of working women with college degrees were teachers. But by 1996 the ranks of working college-educated women had grown dramatically. The teaching profession’s share of educated women’s work fell to 15%.

In movies and TV shows, teachers are usually cast as white women. There's a reason. According to the NCES, about 2/3 of teachers identified as white in the 2014-2015 school year. As for the remaining 1/3, about half of them were Hispanic or Latino.

Teaching is a Choice

With increased professional options for women, the teaching profession has struggled to attract the strongest candidates. In the 1960s, about a quarter of all female teachers graduated in the top 10% of their college class. By the 1990’s, only a tenth did so.

K-12 education is very labor-intensive, and therefore expensive. Staff-related costs (wages and benefits) are by far the largest category of expense in the school system. As the US economy has grown more productive, wages for jobs requiring a college degree have risen at about twice the rate of inflation. Teacher pay, which has merely kept pace with inflation in the last 40 years, has failed to keep up with this trend.

Wages for jobs requiring a college degree have risen at about twice the rate of inflation. Teacher pay has merely kept pace with it.
Average teacher pay, adjusted for inflation, has changed very little since 1970. (NCES data adjusted for CPI, 2012 dollars) Average teacher pay, adjusted for inflation, has changed very little since 1970. (NCES data adjusted for CPI, 2012 dollars)
Average Teacher Salary Compared to Average Income per Capita, selected states 1970-2012.  (Sources: NCES, Average teacher pay has not kept pace with overall rising income per capita since 1970. (Sources: NCES, Census) Additional charts like these are available on EdSource. 

Teaching is Attracting Fewer Top Students in America

Ultimately, the supply of teachers depends on the attractiveness of the teaching profession. As these demographic changes have taken place, teaching has become less attractive relative to alternative professions.

In an analysis of 2001 data, McKinsey, a consultancy, compared teachers in the US with top-achieving school systems such as Finland, Singapore, and South Korea. They found that these education-focused countries consistently attract teachers from the top ranks of college graduates, and that teachers in these countries earn salaries comparable to lawyers and engineers. In the US, by contrast, they found that teaching disproportionately attracts graduates from the bottom third of college graduates.


Research by ACT in 2015 confirmed the conclusion. Many high school students take the ACT exam as part of the process of applying for college. Along with the exam, students are 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," reports ACT in its 2015 Conditions of Future Educators. "Students interested in education have lower-than-average achievement levels, particularly in STEM areas." The declining interest in education as a profession is more acute in California than in other states. Nationally, ACT found that about five percent of those taking the ACT test were interested in teaching or other education-related professions. In California, only three percent expressed interest in education-related work.

How to get great teachers. Even men.

To overcome this macroeconomic challenge to the attractiveness of teaching, take a direct approach. If you want brilliant people to become teachers, ask them. They might say yes. The most prominent example of this strategy is national college-campus recruiting powerhouse Teach for America, which actively recruits top talent from top colleges to begin their careers by teaching at least for two years.

Teaching is not always a first career, however. For example, California-based Encorps (founded by a former member of Full Circle Fund) recruits talent among experienced professionals who want a meaningful next career. If you're wondering whether teaching is for you, and what would be involved in making a career switch, have a look at


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

Answer the question correctly and earn a ticket.
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Questions & Comments

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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
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.
user avatar
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
user avatar
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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