The teachers we pay for

In America, school reform is like the weather.

I know what I should say next: “Everyone complains about it, but no one does anything about it.”

Not my point. As with global climate change, a whole lot of people are doing something about education. Most, unintentionally, are doing more harm than good.

One fundamental problem with our educational system is that we treat our teachers like blue-collar workers, not professionals. In societies with truly outstanding schools – say, Finland, whose schools many experts regard as the world’s best – teachers are recruited from the same pool of bright, high-achieving college students as doctors, lawyers and scientists.

And they’re paid like other professionals.

In America, for all the lip-service we give to the importance of teachers, we pay them too little, and show them too little respect. Which, of course, means that few of our valedictorians aspire to careers in the classroom.

Don’t believe me? Well, I can only judge by my own experience. I’ve been a teacher and a lawyer, and I know from first-hand experience which career contributed more to our country’s future.

But when I hear friends boasting about the achievements of their kids or grandkids, it’s hard for me to pretend I’m as genuinely enthusiastic about the future high school history teacher as I am about the future attorney or CPA.

Perhaps you find it difficult to generate the same level of excitement about your own friends’ future middle school science teachers as you are about the kids and grandkids headed for med school.

In these attitudes, we merely reflect those of our whole society. Even in our public schools, when a guidance counselor advises a bright young scholar about getting the sort of college education that leads to a “good job,” she seldom means her job, or the jobs of her teaching colleagues.

Of course, there was a time when such attitudes didn’t cost us much. America was the world’s manufacturer, innovator and bank. Wealth flowed into the United States, as did the best and brightest minds from all over the world.

We didn’t have to be that smart, or well-educated. We were rich. We could hire smart people for the mentally challenging stuff.

Today, we’re in a fight for our lives, and for our way of life. Yet every generation of Americans since the 1960s has been a little less well-educated than the one before it. The history, literature and science once studied in our high schools gradually became the subject of “remedial courses” at most colleges.

With the decline of the two-year required core curriculum at most colleges, they often ceased to be studied at all.

Today, it’s difficult for most Americans to discuss the Constitution intelligently, because they have no knowledge of our own national history – or of the English, European, Roman and Greek history that was the common intellectual currency of our founders.

It’s nearly impossible to discuss the science behind evolution or global climate change because few Americans, other than trained scientists, understand something as fundamental as the difference between a “theory” and an opinion.

And heaven help anyone looking for an intelligent discussion of the economics of the present recession, or the emergency mechanisms that kept it from turning into an actual depression.

Most of us have opinions on all of these subjects, but absolutely no fundamental grounding in them. That’s one reason why our politics have become so loud and angry. Few of us lack the necessary currency to sit down and discuss our differences in terms of the common understandings which are – or ought to be – the product of a sound public education.

We’ve gotten what we paid for.

To be truthful, we still get a bit more than we pay for, because, even today, there are many dedicated teachers in our schools who could easily double or triple their incomes by switching professions.

But it’s getting harder to keep them. In this country, the average new teacher will leave the profession within four years.

Standardized testing will inevitably make this problem worse. One of the few rewards of teaching is, or once was, relative freedom in deciding what to teach, and how to teach, within the broad general outlines of the curriculum. The best teachers have always been individualists, with a unique teaching style. Bureaucratic programs such as SOLs seek to reduce teaching to assembly-line work.

Some teachers will find ways to accommodate their unique teaching styles to a teach-to-the-test reality. Others will simply leave the profession, or never enter it to begin with. SOLs were why I finally left in 2004. I still miss teaching, but not enough to teach to a multiple-choice test designed by a bureaucratic committee.

As America continues falling behind its global competitors, it grows increasingly important that we begin paying, and treating, our teachers as professionals.
But that would take a real revolution.

Want more ‘Rick?


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