The High Cost of Low Teacher Salaries

A colleague sent me a link to a New York Times article that is worth sharing.

It says some important things and says them right on. I do have a minor quibble, however, that it gives some credit where it is not due. “President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan,” Eggers and Calegari say, “understand the centrality of teachers and have said that improving our education system begins and ends with great teachers.”

But once Pres. George W. Obama and his Dreadful Snicker-Snee (hatchet-man Arne Duncan) have paid lip service to the “the centrality of teachers and have said that improving our education system begins and ends with great teachers,” the policies and proposed policies all militate against low teacher turnover. In fact, continued and enhanced policies that dictate “At the year’s end, if test scores haven’t risen enough, he or she is called a bad teacher… When we don’t like the way particular schools perform, we blame the teachers and restrict their resources” are all part and parcel of Reformist rhetoric. Nothing I have heard yet from the Reformists (Politicians, Pundits, Polemicists, and all too many Professors Who Really Know Better) will do anything to remedy teacher turnover. The vaunted “Race to the Top” is Bush’s NCLB on steroids. Emphasis on “accountability, measurements, [getting rid of] tenure, test scores and pay for performance” are all aimed at getting rid of teachers, not retaining them, churning the profession, not stabilizing it.

Yes, salaries are important. Bright, energetic, well-educated young people are less likely to look with favor upon a career that will not support a respectable middle-class lifestyle. (In 2007, an Idaho teacher with maximum allowable education and experience could expect to top out around $50,000. I doubt that has gone up much.) But at least as important are support, respect, and fair treatment. Together, these make any profession viable as a career. These are the very things that Reformists have dedicated themselves to undermining.

If there is anything worse than the infamous four-letter word, it has become the five-letter word “tenure.” Never mind that the “tenure” Reformists rail against in the media does not exist. Never mind that most teachers and their unions would as soon see “bad” teachers be shown the door, but without trampling on the rights and destabilizing the careers of all. Most contracts and many state laws stipulate that to fire or non-renew a teacher, the district must show “just cause” such as incompetence, non-performance, or misconduct. The burden is generally on the administration to document the grounds for dismissal, to show that a teacher is not doing his job adequately. It is about fair treatment, no more, no less. It protects a teacher against arbitrary, vindictive, or politically motivated sanctions. No more, no less. I will never forget Dean Chatburn, my Personnel professor saying that any administrator who says he can’t get rid of a bad teacher is making excuses for not doing his job.

We live in an age when Politicians in many states seek to legislate such protections out of existence. Why? For one thing, it could save money by allowing districts to arbitrarily dismiss older, more experienced, more educated and hence, more expensive teachers with younger, cheaper ones. For another thing, the younger teachers are more likely to be compliant and easily intimidated and less likely to speak out against some of the more counterproductive policies and practices of the Reform agenda.

The kind of people the nation wants for the teachers of its youth are not likely willing to invest years and treasure in preparing for a profession where they may be here today and gone tomorrow, never mind what the entry-level salary may be.

Please pay particular attention to what it says about Finland and Singapore. For more on educational policy in these countries, see The Flat World and Education by Linda Darling-Hammond.

Teacher compensation (and that includes insurance, retirement, and other benefits as well as salary) is an important part of the picture, but not the whole picture.

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One Response to The High Cost of Low Teacher Salaries

  1. Fero says:

    I love this post. I am a big ole bookworm, but I haven’t alwyas been one. I had trouble learning to read, when finally a teacher took extra time to help me learn. My Mom likes to say that I struggled a lot to read at first but once I learned they could never get me to stop. The Teacher that took that extra time to help me is still my absolute favorite and at 25 I still like to pop in and say hello. He is the Superintendent of our district these days.

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