Last week was Teacher Appreciation Week, and I intended to write on the subject, but a more newsy topic intervened. That’s an apt metaphor for what is happening to the plight of teachers in America today. We live in a media environment in which the urgent often crowds out the important. But this week, I will stick to my plans.
In “East of Eden,” a sprawling, magisterial novel about the great American West, John Steinbeck writes, “In the country the repository of art and science was the school, and the schoolteacher shielded and carried the torch of learning and of beauty. … The teacher was not only an intellectual paragon and a social leader, but also the matrimonial catch of the countryside. A family could indeed walk proudly if a son married the schoolteacher.”
The picture Steinbeck paints (set in the early 20th century) is almost unrecognizable in today’s America, where schoolteachers are so poorly paid that they are five times as likely as the average full-time worker to have a second job, according to Vox. We have all heard about stagnant middle-class wages. But the average pay for a teacher in America, adjusted for inflation, has actually declined over the last 15 years, while their health care costs have risen substantially. The Economist reports that teachers earn 60 percent of what a professional with comparable education does.
The average salary for a teacher in many states is under $50,000. Teachers in West Virginia went on strike a few months ago to demand higher wages, and the government agreed to a 5 percent pay raise, which means the average salary will rise to only $48,000. Like many other states, West Virginia failed to restore education spending after slashing it in the wake of the financial crisis a decade ago. As of last year, per pupil state funding (adjusted for inflation) was still down between 8 and 28 percent in five of the six states where teachers have now gone on strike, according to a study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
With low wages and stretched resources, American educators burn out and quit the profession at twice the rate of some of the highest-achieving countries, as Linda Darling-Hammond of the Learning Policy Institute points out. Since 35 percent fewer Americans have studied to become teachers in recent years, she notes, there are massive teacher shortages, forcing schools nationwide to hire more than 100,000 people who lack the proper qualifications. In fact, the New York Times reports, it is so hard for public schools to find qualified Americans that many districts are starting to recruit instructors from low-wage countries like the Philippines.
It’s not all about salaries. One veteran educator I spoke with, who began working in California in the 1960s, reminisced about that “golden age” when she had ample resources to use in the classroom, went to seminars to develop her skills, and felt fulfilled. Today, teachers have little time or money for any of this. A recent survey of public school teachers found that 94 percent pay for classroom supplies out of their own pockets, without reimbursement, at an average of $479 a year.
It’s not even all about money. Leading a classroom was never a pathway to riches, but teachers once did command the respect and status that Steinbeck’s quote reflects. Andreas Schleicher, who heads the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s education division and has spent years doing careful international comparisons on education, has often observed that the countries that do best at public education – Singapore, Finland, South Korea – can recruit top college graduates into the teaching ranks because they pay reasonably well, they invest in professional development, and their societies show deep respect for the profession. In America, when we encounter a member of the armed services, many of us make a point to thank them for their service. When was the last time you did the same for a public-school teacher?
Yes, education is a very complicated subject. Simply spending more money does not guarantee results – although there are studies that indicate a significant correlation between teacher pay and student achievement. Yes, the education bureaucracy is rigid and often corrupt. But all of this masks the central problem: Over the last 30 years, as part of the assault on government, bureaucrats and the public sector in general, being a teacher in America has become a thankless job. And yet, teaching is the one profession that makes all other professions possible.
Fareed Zakaria is a columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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