“You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that [is] it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”–Rahm Emanuel, Chief of Staff to President Barack Obama (Later Chicago Mayor); Nov. 19, 2008
Experienced teachers always have been the biggest obstacle to privatizing public schools and expanding standardized testing.
That’s why replacing them with new educators has been one of the highest priorities of corporate education reform.
After all, it’s much harder to try to indoctrinate seasoned educators with propaganda that goes against everything they learned to be true about their students and profession in a lifetime of classroom practice than to encourage those with no practical experience to just drink the Kool-Aid.
So it should come as no surprise that supply side policymakers are using the current teacher exodus as an excuse to remake the profession in their own image.
Schools are facing a shortage of 300,000 teachers and staff, according to the National Education Association (NEA), the country’s largest teachers union.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the number closer to 567,000 fewer educators in America’s public schools today than there were before the pandemic. That’s 0.57 new hires for every open position – completely unsustainable.
This was exacerbated by the Covid pandemic, but the slow march of teachers out of the classroom has been going on for at least a decade. The federal government and most states have been either unwilling or unable to act – until now.
But it’s instructive to see exactly what it is they’re doing.
They haven’t even attempted to turn the tide. Nor have they simply tried to stop losing more educators. Instead they’ve taken steps to recruit new teachers while doing nothing to stop the loss of experienced professionals running for the exits.
In my home state of Pennsylvania, the state Department of Education (PDE) put forward a plan with the help of Teach Plus, a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that works to select and train teachers to push its political agenda.
That agenda includes:
1) Embracing the practice of widespread staff firings as a strategy for school improvement.
2) Mandating that test scores be a significant part of teacher evaluation.
3) Advocating against seniority and pushing the false narrative that unions stifle innovation.
Unsurprisingly, Teach Plus has received more than $27 million from the Gates Foundation and substantial donations from the Walton Family Foundation.
And so we see nothing but policies to bring in new blood to the Commonwealth’s teaching force with no help to the veterans already in the field.
The minimum teacher salary in the Commonwealth stands at $18,500 — and has since 1989.
Newly elected Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro proposed a tax credit in his budget of $24.7 million in its first year for police, nurses and teachers.
If approved by the legislature, newly certified members of those three professions would be eligible to receive up to $2,500 off their state income taxes.
However, the credit would be nonrefundable — recipients would save only the amount of tax they would have paid rather than also receiving the unused portion of the credit as a refund.
According to an Associated Press analysis in March, to receive the full $2,500 annual benefit with the state’s 3.07 flat income tax rate, a teacher (nurse or police officer) would have to make almost $82,000 — far above the normal starting wage for those professions.
The proposal, which seems unpopular on both sides of the aisle, doesn’t even do much to increase recruitment. It should have been used to raise the base salary of teachers instead of focusing on just newbies.
But its intent was clear – get more teachers in the door.
We see the same concerns in the state’s new guidelines for antiracist teacher training programs.
PDE is putting forward a new program starting in July called Culturally Relevant and Sustaining Education (CRSE) which includes 49 cultural competence standards to encourage teachers to be more aware of racial issues in our schools.
They were created by the previous Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration with help from The New America Foundation. In fact, most of these guidelines come directly from the foundation by use of a creative commons attribution.
This is a left-leaning DC think tank with ties to President Barack Obama’s administration. Why does that matter? Look at who funds the organization – The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Bloomberg Family Foundation, JPMorgan Chase Foundation, etc.
These are the architects of the most dominant education policies of the last two decades – high stakes standardized testing, charter schools, etc.
The impetus behind enacting these standards is to help recruit more new teachers of color. It’s a worthy goal considering how few teachers are non-white in the Commonwealth. However, increased salary, prestige and autonomy would go a lot farther than this kind of whitewashing.
After all, if the state, the New America Foundation or the billionaire philanthropists backing them actually wanted to decrease racism, they’d be much more successful attacking racist structures than random interactions – reversing the neoliberal policies (charter schools, high stakes testing, etc.) that they, themselves, promote.
However, new teachers won’t know any of this context. They’ll be perfectly happy trying to change the world, themselves, while many of those responsible for it cheer them on safely hidden behind their performative group of standards.
The excuse constantly given for such an emphasis on recruiting new teachers is that so few graduates are entering the profession.
A decade ago, roughly 20,000 new teachers entered the workforce each year in the Commonwealth, while last year only 6,000 did so, according to the state Department of Education (PDE).
However, recruitment is only part of the picture.
Nationally, our teaching workforce is already more inexperienced than in the past. In 2008, more than one in four of America’s teachers – 28 percent – had less than five years of experience. This is especially true in underprivileged areas where schools often have much higher proportions of novices in the classroom.
According to the NEA, educators quitting is driving a significant part of the current educator shortage. More teachers quit the job than those who retire, are laid off, are transferred to other locations, go on disability or die. And this has remained true almost every year for the last decade with few exceptions.
If our government really wanted to solve the problem, it would spend at least as much time keeping the experienced teachers we have as trying to get new ones to join their ranks.
Research shows that teacher experience matters.
“The common refrain that teaching experience does not matter after the first few years in the classroom is no longer supported by the preponderance of the research,” Tara Kini and Anne Podolsky write in Does Teaching Experience Increase Teacher Effectiveness?
“We find that teaching experience is, on average, positively associated with student achievement gains throughout a teacher’s career.”
Their analysis is based on 30 studies published over the past 15 years and concludes:
1) Experienced teachers on average are more effective in raising student achievement (both test scores and classroom grades) than less experienced ones.
2) Teachers do better as they gain experience. Researchers have long documented that teachers improve dramatically during their first few years on the job. However, teachers make even further gains in subsequent years.
3) Experienced teachers also reduce student absences, encourage students to read for recreational purposes outside of the classroom, serve as mentors for young teachers and help to create and maintain a strong school community.
The road to keeping experienced teachers isn’t exactly mysterious.
First, there must be an increase in salary. Teacher pay must at least be adequate including the expectation that as educators gain experience, their salaries will rise in line with what college graduates earn in comparable professions. This is not happening now.
In addition, something must be done to improve teachers working conditions. Lack of proper support and supportive administrators is one of the main reasons experienced teachers leave a building or the profession.
And perhaps most obviously, politicians have to stop scapegoating educators for all of society’s problems and even for all of the problems of the school system. Teachers don’t get to make policy. They are rarely even allowed a voice, but they are blamed for everything that happens in and around education.
If we want teachers to work with socially disadvantaged students, they must be provided with the institutional supports needed to be effective and steadily advance their skills.
But this requires making education a priority and not a political football.
As it is now, the same disaster capitalist shenanigans echo over-and-over again in the halls of our country’s education history with disastrous consequences for students.
Perhaps the most obvious example is in New Orleans.
In 2005, the state and federal government didn’t rebuild the city’s public schools following Hurricane Katrina. Instead, they ushered out as many of the local teachers of color as possible so they could create an entirely new system of charter schools without opposition from the grassroots educators who would oppose such a grand experiment on poor and minority children.
The disaster took place under George W. Bush, but Obama’s Education Secretary Arne Duncan certainly approved, even going so far as to say, ”I think the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina.”
Republicans, Democrats – it doesn’t matter. They both champion nearly the same education policies of standardized testing and school privatization.
Thus it should come as no surprise that our contemporary policy makers are using the current crisis – an ongoing teacher exodus – as an excuse to remodel the education workforce into a more ignorant and malleable one.
When will they ever learn?
When will we ever learn not to trust them?
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