“Education will not cure all the problems of society, but without it no cure for any problem is possible.” -President Lyndon Johnson
Attacking teachers is becoming an all to common occurence in this country. We all watched the protests in Wisconsin as teacher’s rights were being stripped. We know about the bills in Ohio and other states. Recently, it really hit home for me because it hit Kansas City.
Dr. John Covington is the superintendent of the Kansas City, MO school district. The KCMO district has been plagued with huge problems in the past. Dr. Covington was brought in to turn it around. He took a radical approach, that he knew would be unpopular. He drastically cut back on staff and closed around half of the districts schools. People didn’t like it, but understood the necessity for change. Now he may have gone to far. As the Kansas City Star reports, the district recently informed a large number of non-tenured teachers that their contracts would not be renewed. So the district in reducing staff, what’s the big deal? The deal is that the district isn’t reducing staff. They have a contract with Teach For America, a groups that recruits college graduates to teach for a few years in needy schools. The district plans to bring in around 150 new teachers from this program. So why did they fire teachers they already had? We don’t know. The nice thing about non-tenured teachers, in the eyes of districts, is that you don’t have to tell them why. We do know that performance was not a consideration. Dr. Covington confirmed that. So the reason had to be money. The district has budget problems and new teachers cost less than experienced teachers. While, the average pay of teachers is 55 thousand dollars a year, a first year teacher averages only 36.
This raises a question about teacher pay statistics. We’ve heard a lot recently about teachers average pay. There are a few different ways of looking at teacher pay. One is the mean average, where you add up all the teachers salaries and divide it by the number of teachers. Another way to look at it is pay per contract hour. Teachers don’t get paid by the hour exactly, but they sign a contract that says they will work this many hours for this many days. Those contracts are usually around 8 hours a day for an average school year of 180 days. If you take their salary and divide it by the number of hours you get an estimated per hour wage. I don’t like either of these ways. Pay per contract hour is ridiculous. There is no teacher in this country who doesn’t work hours outside of their contract. It’s impossible. Teachers cannot do their jobs in an 8 hour day with kids. There are papers to grade, lesson plans to develop and any number of things that have to be done outside of contract hours. Average pay is better but it is skewed by higher income teachers. In some states teachers make considerably more simply because the cost of living is higher. Usually median pay is the best way to look at salary because it gives you a better idea of the true middle. For instance if Bill Gates is in a room with 50 low wage workers, the median income will be much smaller than the mean. It is also a more accurate view of that group. Median teacher income in this country varies by state but is somewhere between 40-43 thousand dollars a year. That’s not a bad salary by any means, but the media representation has been that teachers are living the high life. They’re not. They are living very middle class lives.
I could go on and on about teacher pay and teacher rights but there is an underlying point here. Teachers do get better benefits than the average worker in this country. They are paid decently. If we continue to hack away at those facts we will find ourselves in a difficult spot. If we continue to take away the incentives that bring people to teaching, are we going to have enough teachers in the future?
The fact is that we need teachers. There are 49 million public school students spread across 98 thousand public schools. Someone has to take on the job of educating them. The truth is not everybody wants to be a teacher. There are those who think of teaching as a calling. Education is sacred to them and they want to go out and teach the world. There aren’t enough of them. We have 3 million teachers in this country and not all of them chose teaching. Many see it as a transition from college to a career. That’s what Teach For America is all about. Those people agree to teach for a couple of years in needy schools. After that couple of years they might quit and move on to what they originally wanted to do. Some of them may find that they really like teaching but another career may offer them more. If we want to have any hope of retaining those some of those teachers we’re going to have to give them a reason to stay. A decent income and guaranteed pension might be a enough of a reason. Taking away those things is reason to leave teaching. In Wisconsin, they are seeing far more retirements than usual. Educators are leaving in droves to make sure they get the retirement benefits they’ve been promised.
In the state of the Union speech, the President said we need to “out-educate” the rest of the world. Can we out educate the world when the total amount of money spent on education at all levels of government doesn’t even equal what the federal government spends on defense? In 2010, the Department of Education had a budget of 64 billion dollars. After you remove Pell grants, they only had 48 billion dollars. Imagine if what we spent on education was equal to what we spend on defense. Somewhere around 700 billion dollars to train teachers, build schools, and send kids to college. We live in a time where Congressman and Senators sound like the government does too much, when it actually does far, far, too little. Maybe we should look to history and something Lyndon Johnson said:
” So we must give every child a place to sit and a teacher to learn from. Poverty must not be a bar to learning, and learning must offer an escape from poverty. But more classrooms and more teachers are not enough. We must seek an educational system which grows in excellence as it grows in size. This means better training for our teachers. It means preparing youth to enjoy their hours of leisure as well as their hours of labor. It means exploring new techniques of teaching, to find new ways to stimulate the love of learning and the capacity for creation.”
The “love of learning and the capacity for creation.” We don’t talk like that anymore. We need to add incentives and bring in new teachers, not take them away. You often hear that certain professions need to be paid top dollar. A company needs to pay their CEO millions to attract the “best and the brightest.” Shouldn’t we want the “best and the brightest” passing on all the knowledge they have? Shouldn’t we want the “best and the brightest” in our classrooms. An average teacher makes 43 thousand dollars a year and is being treated like they shouldn’t ask the government for so much. Yet, that CEO really needs more stock options. If we want to know why education this country is consistently ranked lower than others look at how we treat educators. If we truly valued education we would spend hundreds of billions of dollars and pay teachers more, build better schools, do more research into how to teach, and build better teacher education programs. Then we might see real results in education.