The One Reform We Never Try: Increase Teacher Salary

 

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There are many suggestions for improving America’s public schools:

 

More standardized tests.

 

New academic standards.

 

Increase charter schools and/or allow kids to attend private schools with public money.

 

But one reform you hardly ever hear about is this: pay teachers more.

 

Isn’t that funny?

 

We’re willing to try almost everything else but that.

 

Sure, some folks want to tie teachers’ salaries to test scores, but that’s not increasing pay. That’s just doubling down on standardized testing.

 

Isn’t it shocking that no one is willing to invest more money into the actual act of educating children?

 

Consider this: full-time employees making minimum wage earn between $15,000-$20,000 a year. (Some states have voluntarily raised the minimum wage above the federally mandated $7.25 to as much as $10 an hour.)

 

Compare that to a teacher’s starting salary.

 

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), the low end for teachers entering the field is around $30,000. That’s a mere $10,000 above the most generous minimum wage.

 

There are places in this country where going into debt earning a four year degree in education, serving an (often unpaid) internship in the classroom and agreeing to teach the next generation gets you a few notches above fry chefs and WalMart greeters.

 

This isn’t to disparage burger cooks or grocery clerks. I, too, love a crispy French fried potato and a sincere greeting. But which profession is more important to our future as a nation? The quality of our service industries or the education of every single child in the country – all our future doctors, lawyers, politicians and… well… EVERYTHING!

 

Average starting salary for teachers nationwide is only $37,000, according to NACE.

 

Compare that to other professions.

 

Computer programmers start at $65,000. Engineers start at $61,000. Accountants (mathematics and statistics majors) start at $54,000. Even philosophers and priests (philosophy and religious studies majors) start at $45,000.

 

Are they more important than teachers? Do they provide more value for society?

 

I humbly suggest that they do not.

 

Who taught the programmers how to program? Who taught the engineers and accountants how to add and subtract? Who taught the philosophers how to think logically? Who taught the priests how to write their sermons?

 

TEACHERS. That’s who.

 

Yet if we judge purely by starting salary, we certainly don’t value their services much.

 

To be specific, they make 14 percent less than those from professions that require similar levels of education, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

 

Sadly, it only gets worse as time goes on.

 

Teacher salary starts low, and grows even more slowly.

 

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According to a report by the Center for American Progress, the average base salary for a teacher with 10 years of experience and a bachelor’s degree is $45,000. That’s a mere $800 annual raise. No wonder more than 16 percent of teachers have a second or third job outside of the school system. They simply can’t survive on the salary.

 

They can’t buy a home or even rent an apartment in most metropolitan areas. They can’t afford to marry, raise children, or eke out a middle class existence.

 

What effect does this have on students?

 

Well, for one, it often leaves them with inexperienced or exhausted teachers.

 

Nationwide, 46 percent of educators quit before reaching the five year mark. And it’s worse in urban districts, where 20 percent quit every single year!

 

That translates to more students learning from educators who are, themselves, just learning how to teach. If we took pains to keep them in the profession, think of what a positive impact that would have on the quality of education the nation’s students  receive – Teachers learning from experience and improving their practice every year instead of a continual flux of novices just trying to figure out the basics and survive!

 

But it’s not all intangibles. It costs bookoo bucks to constantly find and train new teachers – roughly $7.34 billion a year, to be exact. Imagine if we could invest that money into salaries instead.

 

This is exactly what they do in many other countries.

 

We’re always comparing ourselves with nations in Europe and Asia where students average higher standardized test scores. Yet we rarely enact the policies that got them these results.

 

Many of these countries recruit the top graduates to become teachers. How? By offering sweeteners and incentives to become a life-long educator.

 

In Singapore and Finland, for example, they actually cover the cost of the college coursework needed to become a teacher. And when it comes to salary, they leave us in the dust. In South Korea, they pay educators an average of 250 percent more than we do!

 

For many people, education is a calling. You feel drawn toward the job because it holds meaning to you. But how many people ignore that calling because of simple economics? There are plenty of things you can do with your life; If you can’t earn a living doing one thing, you may opt for something else.

 

How many more excellent teachers would we have in this country if we prized and rewarded those practitioners we already have?

 

It doesn’t take a deep dive into the news to see how teachers are treated in American society far beyond the low pay.

 

Everything that goes wrong in our public schools is laid at their feet whether they have any control over it or not. Child poverty, inequitable and inadequate resources, regressive and nepotistic policy, backward education legislation – it’s all somehow the teacher’s fault.

 

Imagine if we saw teachers as part of the solution! What effect would that have on teacher turnover?

 

Look no further than our foreign counterparts. In South Korea, turnover is only 1 percent per year. In Finland, it’s 2 percent. In Singapore, it’s 3 percent.

 

It’s certainly worth a try.

 

As reforms go, this is one with more evidence behind it than 90 percent of the garbage that comes floating out of partisan think tanks.

 

Pay teachers more.

 

Starting salary should be at least $65,000. End pay after 30 years should be at least $150,000.

 

THAT would boost educational outcomes.

 

And, please, don’t give me any nonsense about summer break, teacher tenure, the power of unions or whatever else you heard on talk radio or the corporate news media. Teachers average 53 hours a week August through June – making up for any downtime in the summer, tenure doesn’t mean a job for life – it means due process, and unions aren’t evil – they just ensure workers more rights than the bosses would like.

 

Moreover, don’t tell me we can’t afford it. We spend more on the military than the next 8 nations combined.

 

Imagine if we put a priority on raising our own children instead of guns and missiles. Imagine if we spent more on life than death.

 

Imagine if we tried the one reform left in the box – increase teacher pay.

 

The Longest Lasting Lesson – A Thank You to All the Excellent Teachers I’ve Ever Had

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They say teaching is the one profession that creates all the others.

That teachers affect eternity; no one can tell where their influence stops.

And it’s certainly true in my life.

I wouldn’t be the person I am today without a string of excellent educators.

For better or worse, I am the product of decades of first-rate instruction and inspiration.

There are so many teachers who made a profound impact on my life.

Mr. Mitchell taught me how to express my opinion, listen to others and consider their point of view before responding.

Ms. Robb taught me how to organize my thoughts so they make sense to someone else.

Mr. Geissler taught me how money and politics work together.

Ms. Neuschwander taught me the value of a good story.

And there are so many more. I wish I could remember them all.

If we’re honest, everyone had a plethora of powerful pedagogues in their lives.

Their names are legion – even if we can’t remember most of them.

During this Teacher Appreciation Week, the one that keeps popping into my head is Ms. Zadrel.

She was my third grade teacher.

I don’t remember what she looked like. I don’t remember most of her lessons. I’m not even sure if I’m spelling her name right.

But I do remember how she organized her class.

The room was a separate town called Zadrelville. The rows of desks were streets. Each student had a job and we earned play money.

We could send each other letters, play the lottery, vote for class mayor – almost everything you’d do in a small town. Everyday tasks were jobs – emptying the pencil sharpener, passing out papers, cleaning the blackboard, etc.

And me? I wrote the newspaper. “The News of 201” it was called.

It was a fairly gossipy rag. Headlines included things like who liked whom, if someone got paddled in gym, and which was better – Indiana Jones or Star Wars movies.

I made the paper myself, ran it off on the copier and delivered it to subscribers’ desks.

I published about once a week. Any day a new edition would roll hot off the press (and it actually was warm), everyone in the class had to have one. It was essential reading.

There even may have been a few fights caused by some of my articles.

“You like Beth!? She’s got cuties!”

I never got a chance to see Ms. Zadrel’s lesson plans. I’m not sure exactly what she had in mind for us from this classroom management model. But I learned a lot.

Perhaps the longest lasting lesson was about myself. I learned how much I love being creative and how important it is for me to impact people’s lives.

Would I have become a teacher, myself, if I hadn’t had this experience? Maybe not.

I’d always enjoyed writing, but seeing such a demand for my work probably changed my life.

I wasn’t just writing for ME. I was writing for an audience. I gauged what the class wanted from a newspaper and provided it.

My articles may have caused a stir, but no one ever unsubscribed. By putting all that everyday ephemera in one place, we all learned much more about each other.

I loved it so much that when I went to fourth grade, I kept up the paper. It didn’t have quite the same magic in a class that wasn’t its own self-contained city, but I’d already been bitten by the bug.

You might say that this blog, itself, is really just a continuation of that adolescent newspaper I started in Ms. Zadrel’s class.

I’ve been a professional journalist, a freelancer and now a blogger. But I’m really just writing a classroom newspaper for people who are interested in another edition.

Ms. Zadrel is long retired. I don’t know what happened to her or if she’s even still around somewhere.

I don’t know what she’d say if she could read this blog.

But I know what I’d say to her.

Thank you.

With all my heart – thank you.


NOTE: This article also was published on the Badass Teachers Association blog.