Writing in The New York Times, Dave Eggers and Ninive Clements Calegari bring some blessed common sense to the subject of teacher salaries:
WHEN we don’t get the results we want in our military endeavors, we don’t blame the soldiers. We don’t say, “It’s these lazy soldiers and their bloated benefits plans! That’s why we haven’t done better in Afghanistan!” No, if the results aren’t there, we blame the planners. We blame the generals, the secretary of defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff. No one contemplates blaming the men and women fighting every day in the trenches for little pay and scant recognition.
And yet in education we do just that. When we don’t like the way our students score on international standardized tests, we blame the teachers. When we don’t like the way particular schools perform, we blame the teachers and restrict their resources.
At the moment, the average teacher’s pay is on par with that of a toll taker or bartender. Teachers make 14 percent less than professionals in other occupations that require similar levels of education. In real terms, teachers’ salaries have declined for 30 years. The average starting salary is $39,000; the average ending salary — after 25 years in the profession — is $67,000. This prices teachers out of home ownership in 32 metropolitan areas, and makes raising a family on one salary near impossible.
So how do teachers cope? Sixty-two percent work outside the classroom to make ends meet. For Erik Benner, an award-winning history teacher in Keller, Tex., money has been a constant struggle. He has two children, and for 15 years has been unable to support them on his salary. Every weekday, he goes directly from Trinity Springs Middle School to drive a forklift at Floor and Décor. He works until 11 every night, then gets up and starts all over again. Does this look like “A Plan,” either on the state or federal level?
We’ve been working with public school teachers for 10 years; every spring, we see many of the best teachers leave the profession. They’re mowed down by the long hours, low pay, the lack of support and respect.
Imagine a novice teacher, thrown into an urban school, told to teach five classes a day, with up to 40 students each. At the year’s end, if test scores haven’t risen enough, he or she is called a bad teacher. For college graduates who have other options, this kind of pressure, for such low pay, doesn’t make much sense. So every year 20 percent of teachers in urban districts quit. Nationwide, 46 percent of teachers quit before their fifth year. The turnover costs the United States $7.34 billion yearly. The effect within schools — especially those in urban communities where turnover is highest — is devastating.
And they don’t even mention the fact that many teachers spend their own money to supply their classrooms.
Mind you, according to the Republican party these are the greedy bastards whose rapacious unions are bankrupting state governments. Even some Democrats have been joining in. The public schools have been mostly abandoned, their budgets slashed or diverted into the charter school scam. Teachers can turn on the television and hear blowhards who wouldn’t last a weak in a classroom talk about how easy their job is. The simple reality is that teacher salaries are a national disgrace, and even worse than that is the complete lack of respect with which they’re treated. The only reason teachers get the crumbs they do is because their unions fight tooth and nail to get them. The unions are just about the only good guys in our sordid educational system.
The solution seems clear enough:
The consulting firm McKinsey recently examined how we might attract and retain a talented teaching force. The study compared the treatment of teachers here and in the three countries that perform best on standardized tests: Finland, Singapore and South Korea.
Turns out these countries have an entirely different approach to the profession. First, the governments in these countries recruit top graduates to the profession. (We don’t.) In Finland and Singapore they pay for training. (We don’t.) In terms of purchasing power, South Korea pays teachers on average 250 percent of what we do.
And most of all, they trust their teachers. They are rightly seen as the solution, not the problem, and when improvement is needed, the school receives support and development, not punishment. Accordingly, turnover in these countries is startlingly low: In South Korea, it’s 1 percent per year. In Finland, it’s 2 percent. In Singapore, 3 percent.
Interestingly, these other countries don’t put all their eggs in the basket of standardized testing, or in short-sighted policies of cutting school budgets on the slightest whim. Hard to believe they get better results.
Of course, the changes Eggers and Calegari suggest will not be happening any time soon. With the Republicans eagerly redistributing wealth upwards and slashing anything that benefits non-millionaires, and with the Democrats seemingly too weak to stand up to them, who is going to take a stand for teachers?