By John Sener
[Note: On May 1, Bonnie Bracey Sutton, ETCJ editor on policy issues, posted a link to Dave Eggers and Ninive Clements Calegari’s NY Times op-ed, “The High Cost of Low Teacher Salaries” (April 30), in the journal’s private listserv for possible discussion. On May 2, John Sener, ETCJ writer, posted a version of the following article in the discussion. -Editor]
I almost wish this article had been titled “The High Cost of Low Teacher Respect” because the issue is about more than just low salaries, as the actual article demonstrates. It is good to see teacher advocates fighting back directly with a “put your money where your mouth is” argument, though. You want results like Finland, South Korea, Singapore? Do what they do. Linda Darling-Hammond has been making a similar argument recently. Unfortunately, the argument presented in this article is weakened by a number of flaws:
- The current prevailing ideology in American educational reform is that the “free market” (more accurately termed the “rigged market,” but that’s another conversation) can do things more efficiently. This article really doesn’t address that argument. In part, it’s because it’s so hard to counter a free market ideology that operates on the level of belief (as opposed to actual results), and it’s exceedingly hard to disprove a belief.
- The numbers they come up with are apparently designed for a policymaker audience who lives in urban, high-cost areas. Making $68K for starters, $150K maximum would make teachers kings in most places. This argument will not fly in flyover country, which is most of the country.
- The aggregate cost of their proposal is fabulously expensive. On the one hand, I sort of like that because it shows just how expensive it would be to take everyone’s education seriously. (Flipping the education and defense budgets might not even be enough.) On the other hand, it also provides ammunition for those who would seek lower-cost solutions from the free market. Arguably, it also hurts some of those who are on the front lines of change — for example, public employees in various states (WI, OH, IN, etc.) who are getting financially bashed not because they make as much as “toll takers or bartenders” but because they are slightly better off than average (or being hurt less than average) in their locales.
- Finland, South Korea, and Singapore are handpicked of course for their distinct attributes; they are also small, relatively heterogeneous countries, which raises the question of whether their success attributes could be replicated in other larger countries (China? India? Canada???).
- Be careful what you wish for — the federal government does not provide direct subsidies for training, but it does provide indirect subsidies in the form of financial aid for students in teacher education programs. It’s not the same, but it’s not clear that more direct federal intervention is the best strategy either.
- The argument reflects dichotomous thinking — understandable, but unfortunate. I’ve been thinking a fair amount recently about how people view the impending cyberization of education in either/or terms: if learning happens online, then teachers will disappear; if students have more authority over their learning, then they will rule; if uniform, rigorous standards are not applied to all students, then no meaningful standards are possible; etc. The article’s authors are clearly reacting to the decline in teacher pay and respect. But a dichotomous response always oversimplifies the issue, and the issue is more complex than that.
Having said all that, I don’t mind their approach; perhaps it even makes sense from a negotiating perspective. Based on my experience as a former ESL teacher, my sense is that at root the issue is cultural: Americans still haven’t learned to care about education to the same degree as they do in other countries. One of the best parts of that job was the high level of respect I received from my students (some of whom were South Korean and Singaporean), which I recollect as being in distinct contrast to how public school teachers were typically treated — and it hasn’t gotten better since then, apparently.
When we see signs that state and federal governments are willing to invest more in education and to treat the profession with more respect, then we’ll know that a cultural shift is underway. And I’m glad to see some fightback against the high cost of low teacher respect. But of course just raising teacher pay across the board isn’t going to do it…
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