Sunday, January 15, 2012

Response to Trenton OpEd: "Teachers are America's Backbone"

Today’s Op-Ed by Gene A. Budig and Alan Heaps rightly acknowledged the critical role that teachers play in shaping our nation’s future. It also pointed out the relative lack of respect and admiration received by our teachers when viewed globally. But there are several points in their piece that are insufficiently detailed and that I have to disagree with.

The authors repeat the common mantra about teachers, that teaching “is still a prized profession- a calling as much as a job,” and that teachers by and large act out of some sort of moral imperative. Now I don’t dispute that many teachers possess those feelings, but I would love to see a longitudinal study that shows how long those feelings endure. Idealism has a way of wearing thin, and as the years go by many teachers are compelled by other factors, most notably job security, as much as they are by their love of kids and love of teaching.

In my own experience I met teachers with a variety of motivations for entering and staying in the classroom. For many new teachers that were raised in poor or lower middle class homes, money is absolutely a strong motivator, as are the benefits, which are generally speaking much better than you will find in other professions. Some women I knew became teachers to find husbands- sorry ladies but its true. Some women and men go into teaching to supplement their spouse's income. Others become teachers because they want to coach, and teaching is in fact secondary to the basketball court or football field. Still others love the hours- I would want to look a little more closely at the 50 hours a week claim- both the daily schedule and the 10 month calendar.

For teachers looking to supplement their base salary with coaching, advising, curriculum writing, tutoring, or work in other field, finding that supplemental income is not very hard.  

I guess my point is that teachers are really not much different from anyone else, and that the generalizations in the article cloud the issue. Education is America’s backbone, and teachers play a pivotal role in a child’s emotional, intellectual, and practical development. But we must also admit that there is a wide range of ability among teachers, and there are far too many teachers that do not perform to the levels we need to reach our “at risk,” passive, and disaffected students.

We also pay teachers using a salary structure that offers absolutely no pecuniary incentive to improve performance, or even to pay the better teachers more. If you think that our better teachers- the ones putting in the long hours and connecting with their kids- don’t get frustrated that other less motivated teachers with the same years of experience get paid the same salary, they you are just way too myopic. Budig and Heaps note that college deans believe that teachers “cannot be indefinitely disadvantaged when it comes to fair economic treatment,” but there will be little public support for increasing teacher salaries unless some system is put in place for measuring performance and tying that performance to income.

The authors remark that “teacher retention is too low,” and money may certainly be a consideration, but there are others. A recent study by the Guardian (UK) noted that teachers are by and large disturbed by the lack of professionalism they are treated with, and the lack of autonomy and respect they have on the job. This is confirmed by a Scientific American study of the 25,000 young STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) teachers that left the profession last year.

Many of these STEM teachers came from the upper strata of recent college graduates, so losing these “best and brightest” is a real blow to education, especially in the inner city. Although interest in teaching is high among college students, the authors should share with us whom amongst these students are from this top tier. I remember hearing last week that the vast majority of new teachers come from the lowest third of their graduating class. This must be corrected, and it is incumbent on our legislators to device public policy that motivate the elite college students to choose the classroom over the lab, boardroom, trading floor, or operating room.

I loved my 21 years in the classroom, and I am proud of the work I performed. I am one of those people for which teaching was a calling, but I’d be lying to say that there wasn't more to it. We need better teachers, we need better support for our teachers, we need a better way of paying them, and we need to change the way that our culture values the profession. All of these needs are intertwined. The urgency to make these changes is real. We cannot resign another generation of inner city children to an inadequate education, relegating them to a socioeconomic tier they will spend a lifetime trying to pull themselves out of.

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