In the United States, we don’t trust teachers. We think that, because we went to school, we know how schools should work. We think that because our children are entitled to a free public school education through high school, we are entitled to tell teachers what to do and how to do it. Imagine if we treated all other professions the same way. At a doctor’s appointment, having had three other successful surgeries, you tell the surgeon the best time to perform the surgery, where to make the first cut, and what type of anesthesia (and how much) to use. At the lawyer’s office, since you watch television law programs all the time and you’ve served on jury duty in the past, you tell the attorney that you would like to have input on her arguments in your case. You watch House of Cards and you vote, so you call your senator’s office to offer your assistance in drafting a policy briefing to be presented to the House of Representatives. Because you eat out a lot, you contact the USDA because you want them to change their restaurant rules and regulations.
Sounds silly, doesn’t it? But this kind of thing happens all the time in education. On August 2nd, the Washington Post reported that lawmakers in at least 12 states are becoming involved in setting education standards. Should politicians really be deciding what is appropriate for our children to learn? These legislators argue that they are giving the public a voice in setting academic standards for their children. Wisconsin Superintendent of Schools Tony Evers wrote in a letter to a Wisconsin newspaper: “Beyond the Common Core, are we ready for our legislators to debate and legislate academic standards related to evolution, creationism, and climate change when they take up the science standards? What about topics like civil liberties and civil rights, genocide, religious history, and political movements when they take up social studies?”
To me, this is all part of a larger issue. We don’t respect educators, and we don’t believe that they know how to practice their craft. Our teacher salaries are some of the lowest in the developed world: we rank 22nd out of 27 countries. American teachers earn less than 60% of the average pay for college-educated workers in other fields with the same amount of experience. No wonder teaching is a profession that often does not often attract the highest performing college graduates; in 2010, McKinsey released a report stating that only 23% of new teachers come from the top third of their classes. For those who do decide to teach, forty to fifty percent of them leave the profession within the first five years. The Atlantic published an article last year addressing the reasons why these teachers leave, and many cite a lack of respect, low pay, and a high degree of pressure. The majority of teachers who stay in the field do so because they love to teach. Trust me, it’s not just summer vacation (although that is a definite plus); if you add up all the extra hours that a teacher puts in during the ten months he is in school, those hours more than equal the eight week break during the summer. In fact, if you do the math, many teachers earn less per hour than the minimum wage. Many of them work second jobs, either during the school year or over the summer, because they have student loans and rent and mortgages to pay. Ten months of the year, your child’s teacher likely spends more time per weekday with him than you do, devoting her professional life to learning about brain development and best teaching practices. Why would you want your state or local representative, who typically has no training or experience in education or child development, to decide what the academic standards should be for our children?
That being said, not all teachers are created equal. Teacher training programs vary widely; I began my education career with a Master’s degree in Elementary Education after an intense, focused certification program, whereas some of my colleagues started with a Bachelor’s degree. Classroom experience can range from a semester observing another teacher to a six-week student-teaching experience to a full year spent in the classroom, with increasing responsibilities over the course of that year. And, of course, academic standards differ from state to state; that is the reason behind the development of the Common Core Standards in the first place.
Improving our schools is going to take a multi-pronged approach. We are going to have to elevate teachers’ status, ensuring that they’ve completed rigorous preparation programs and paying them salaries commensurate with those of other professionals. Former teacher (and current attorney) Sarah Blaine explains how she experienced this dichotomy between education and law very well in her blog post on the subject. Once we’ve helped attract the best teachers to the classrooms, we may need to agree upon some minimum skills that all students graduating from high school should have: for example, should every high school graduate be able to do basic math through Algebra I? Should every high school graduate be able to read at least on an eighth-grade level? Having basic minimum standards does not mean that many students will not surpass these minimums, but it does mean that we will not graduate students who are functionally illiterate. And then we will need to develop tests that actually measure these skills accurately, with no cultural or socioeconomic biases.
We trust doctors, lawyers, and business people to manage their own professions and to perform their jobs ethically and to the best of their ability. Why is it so hard for us to hold those same expectations for educators?
This post was originally published on GoLocalProv.