What to do with teachers

The Wisconsin debacle, with recalls quickly looming for Republican senators, showed us a lot about how we’ve started thinking about teachers. Evidently, to the legislators, they’re a line-item – a liability on the government’s budget. I’m fairly confident that somewhere in his past, Governor Walker had a teacher who wronged him in some way. Little else could justify the dismissal of one of the country’s greatest assets.

It’s high time we started treating teachers like one of our country’s necessities.

Unfortunately, the continual pay spiral (downward, of course) that they face is clearly not the way to go about this. In some of the debates, it was ridiculously claimed that teachers make as much as lawyers, and all at the expense of the taxpayer.

Since you’re reading this at Concordia where, if you don’t know someone who is an Ed major, it’s because you haven’t left your room, I’m sure that I don’t have to tell you this is lunacy. To be fair, at one point this was almost true, which is hard to believe nowadays. In the 1970s in New York, a first-year public teacher made only $2,000 less than a first-year lawyer. Presently the difference has risen to $115,000. If you had to guess, it’s in favor of the lawyer.

Here’s another statistic: according to a study by McKinsey & Company, 47 percent of America’s K-12 teachers are from the bottom third of their college class by SAT. So the question becomes: Are we reinforcing these poor teachers by paying them little, or driving off the better, brighter teachers to become the aforementioned lawyers? Answer: a little of both.

The recent trend of easing certification standards for teachers, combined with little pay keeps driving higher-achieving students away from the career path, and lets lower-achieving students slip in to fill the need. The result is that we continually drive the quality of our education system down before the school year even starts. (Bear in mind that this doesn’t take Concordia teachers into account – I’ve never seen students so driven to teach. All that applies is the fact that they will face small salaries and low job security.)

Then, after these low-quality teachers have stuck around long enough, they become tenured and are now entrenched in the school system.

Lots of talk has circulated about merit-based pay systems, and truth be told, I’m all for that. In fact, Florida has just voted to institute the program. It may sound a little risky, and it might put some teachers out of a job, but to be cold-hearted, it’ll be the ones who shouldn’t have been teaching our classes in the first place. These positions will, theoretically, be filled with better, more motivated teachers.

A study from Los Angeles discovered that having a teacher from the 25 percent most effective group of all teachers for four years in a row could eliminate the black-white achievement gap. That’s powerful stuff. I think it’s time that we shift the paradigm away from poorly paid workers. Teachers in the United States should be one of our national treasures – a work force so motivated (and well compensated) that it could literally turn around our country’s future. We need to flip the pay scale on its head so that a new teacher can make as much as a newly minted lawyer again. If the market is competitive for teachers, it will improve the prospects of teachers in the nation, and improve the quality of the workforce.

The earlier mentioned McKinsey study also found that by changing new teacher pay to $65,000 from the current average of $39,000, that would be enough to fill most positions in high-schools with teachers from the top third of their college class. While it looks like nearly doubling the salary, it’s a relative steal compared to the lawyer or a doctor. And by making the change, we’ll produce better lawyers, doctors, statesmen, accountants, boatswains, whatever you can think of. I know I’d be willing to pony up the money if it could turn around the country to such a degree.

Thankfully, President Obama has declared that “we cannot cut education” in a speech last week. We’re still trying to figure out a way to get through the economic turmoil we find ourselves in, but by declaring that we cannot reduce education, Obama places an emphasis on the schools that he has been trying to show all along. If we can keep education and its progress as a touchstone in the coming future, then maybe we have more hope than Scotty Walker would allow.


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