I had an unexpected, yet illuminating, conversation recently with a former colleague in education. With just a few weeks before his non-probationary (third year) status was up, he was told he’d be non-renewed at his current school. Until his last evaluation, he hadn’t a negative comment; he had no identified areas of deficiencies. His kids performed well according to the measures of his school and department. He was passionate about kids, teaching, and his subject matter. It was his driving force to make social studies relevant, global, and meaningful for his students.
His supervisor was willing to write him a letter of recommendation and would even hire him back if another position in his subject area were to open up. However, this particular middle school social studies teacher, two sport coach, and highly involved staff member was unable to find another teaching job. He spent several months completing applications, interviewing, and being told he was a strong candidate and was near the top of those interviewed, but still could not find a new position. He was professional through the rest of the school year. He didn’t make a production of his termination with his kids as is often the case with some departing teachers.
As his last official day at school passed, and he still had no job or even job prospects. The inclination to falsely tie his ability to get a teaching job with his worth as a person and husband started to get the better of him. He was disillusioned and shaken on a level much more than the professional. He was getting desperate to find a job. He expanded his search, considered longer and longer commutes, and still nothing. It was difficult to watch the events unfold and my 17 years in education as teacher and administrator proved useless in being of any assistance to him.
However, this particular post isn’t about the inequities or difficulties of finding a teaching job in a tight job market and how that relates to a teacher shortage crisis. It’s about the unexpected part of the conversation I alluded to earlier. He’s now switched job paths completely and is managing a fast food restaurant. He doesn’t make any apologies for it and is doing quite well. My casual inquiry about how it was going turned serious when he said, “Rick, I’m so much more empowered now than I ever was as a teacher.” I didn’t expect that and in my own three years in fast food, I never really felt empowered even in the semi-managerial role I briefly held. We talked more about empowerment and the teaching profession, locally and nationally, and pieces of other recent conversations and experiences came together throughout our discourse.
His story is not unique and many teachers willingly leave the profession for myriad reasons. Teachers leaving the profession concerns me, but not as much as the ones who decide (and are deciding) not to come to the profession at all.
Welcome to the Machine
I was at the Virtual School Symposium in November and keynote speaker former Governor Bob Wise, who is now the President for Alliance for Excellent Education, spoke in his presentation about the mounting teacher shortage as being one of three looming crises that are challenging America’s k-12 education system  . (The other two being declining state fiscal revenues and increased global demands for skilled workers.) Two of the statistics he presented to support this shortage were
- In 1987-88 the typical teacher had 15 years of experience.
- By 2007-08 the typical teacher had just 1 to 2 years of experience. 
What strikes me about these two bits of information is where they fall in the
milestones tombstones(?) of reform efforts in American education. The connection to the impending teacher crisis may not be strictly causal, but it does give me pause. In 1989, the year following 87-88 referenced above and sparked by the 1983 publication of A Nation at Risk, state governors convened a summit to focus on education. Out of this the the National Education Goals panel was formed and eventually produced the Goals 2000 legislation , signed into law in 1994 . As a follow up in 1996, the National Education Summit convened pledging “to support efforts to set academic standards at the state and local levels” . Also keep in mind in the mid to late 90′s outcomes-based education evolved and messily imploded. Within a few years, states who haven’t adopted academic standards move to do so in the wake of NCLB that is signed into law in 2001. High-stakes standardized testing, school report cards, and the political and continued public vilification of educators soon follow. In 2002 states and school districts that receive Title I funding are required to participate in NAEP in order to keep those federal dollars . High-stakes standardized testing, school report cards, and the political and continued public vilification of educators soon follow.
As the standardized tests explicitly elevated in importance the subjects math, science, and language arts, by extension those potential teachers with a passion for other areas found (and continue to find) themselves marginalized, lost in the hysteria of high-stakes, standardized testing. Math, science, and language arts teachers resent[ed] the building pressure to have their kids perform well on the tests while other teachers resent[ed] the cuts (fiscally, politically, and practically) to their disciplines, especially the arts.
In a world of scale scores, cut points, and proficiency levels, the creative impulse in humans, and its associated propensity toward risk and possible failure, becomes unpalatable.
And, in the name of raising test scores, we continue to educate the creativity right out of our children.
So much so that we have to create “partnerships” and entire buzz phrase endeavors to reintroduce ourselves and our kids to the parts of themselves we’ve tested out of them. Consider also the Wall Street Journal article by Sue Shellenbarger that reports “Americans’ scores on a commonly used creativity test fell steadily from 1990 to 2008, especially in the kindergarten through sixth-grade age group…” . We’ve heard Sir Ken Robinson tell us that “creativity is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status” in one of his creativity and school talks from 2006 . If that’s too outdated, perhaps we should pay close attention to his take on the arts, creativity, and divergent thinking in his excellent RSA Animate talk from October 2010 .
In an environment where just about everything has to be quantified and translated into sterile, lifeless measurable outcomes where learners are commodities to be grown for higher education or employers (rather than being developed as human beings), it’s little wonder that more people aren’t flocking to the profession. This, as many current educators will tell you, is only one point of consideration. There are many more factors that are contributing to our teacher shortage -perhaps we’ll discuss some of them here.
[1 ] Slide 2, The Online Learning Imperative Report and an Update on the Digital Learning Council
 Slides 7 & 8, The Online Learning Imperative Report and an Update on the Digital Learning Council
 PBS Frontline, Are We There Yet?
 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Frequently Asked Questions: Is participation in NAEP voluntary?
 Shellenbarger, Sue. The Wall Street Journal Online, December 15, 2010, A Box? Or a Spaceship? What Makes Kids Creative