Sunday, May 1, 2011

Ramblings about Money in Education

Today's New York Times publishes a David Eggers and Ninive Clements Calegari editorial "The High Cost of Low Teacher Salaries."

Eggers and Calegari point out that "[i]n the next 10 years, over half of the nation’s nearly 3.2 million public school teachers will become eligible for retirement."  It seems as if that sort of statistic has been spread for years.  The country always seems to be on the cusp of a teacher shortage.

Eggers and Calegari do point out that teacher salaries are low compared to other jobs that require a college degree.  Refreshingly, they illustrate some of the costs of that low pay.
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.
The costs are not just personal; "[n]ationwide, 46 percent of teachers quit before their fifth year. The turnover costs the United States $7.34 billion yearly."

Eggers and Calegari also illustrate that Singapore, Finland, and South Korea, countries beloved of education reformers, have a twofold plan that the United States doesn't.
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.
The authors point to a study that says that 68 percent of top tier students would consider a career in education if pay began at $65,000 and topped out at $150,000.  Anticipating the question of how to pay for the increased salaries, Eggers and Calegari assert that the country needs only to have the vision and then citizens will find the way.

I love the idea of getting paid more.  This year, I hope to be able to hold my own and not go backwards.  I also love the idea of people envisioning great things like the moon landing.  Encouraging people to have a vision, however, is a necessary element to get more money for education, but it may not be sufficient.

First, everyone has gone through school.  In fact, everyone has spent at least 13 years as a student, so nearly everyone believes they are an expert about education. Further, the 13 years of education make it rather mundane.  Most people defer to doctors because they probably spend less than 13 minutes of any given month with a doctor.  It's difficult for people to envision greatness when the event is a daily occurrence like taking a shower.

Second, school is the first institution that forced large groups of people to do what they didn't want to do, sit in desks and read or do math or remember facts that had little relevance at the time.  Having the coercive nature of adulthood thrust on 7 or 8 year olds may not produce the romantic tendencies necessary for great visions.

Cynically, it seems as if we're slowly moving away from that forced adulthood and asking less of students.  Ironically, that movement away from enforcing adult situations may be making the situation even worse.  When I started teaching, it seemed that the major job now was to prepare students for jobs or college.  High school was the first step to prepare for a career.  Now, it seems that the job is to prepare students to take government mandated tests.

Before people like Eggers and Calegari can get support for the idea of paying teachers more and getting more funding for the tools necessary to educate students, they need to find a way to change the broader culture.

Americans need to understand that public education should not focus on NCLB tests or preparing people for a job, although that goal is a step up.  Education, properly understood,  should provide a zest for life or prepare people to participate in democracy.

Only goals like these will allow people to envision education as something worth sacrificing to spend more.

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