Tag Archives: teacher pay

Teachers Know: Pay Isn’t the Problem

My wife wants to quit her job. She told me as much on a walk this afternoon. I wasn’t overly concerned. This has become an annual ritual in the early months of every spring term. Like so many teachers, she reaches a point in her year where the demands on her time and emotional energy exceed her capacity to give. She won’t actually quit–though the desire is real–but I was reminded by a recent Quillette article just how many teachers do leave and just how facile the usual impulse to scapegoat pay really is.

This isn’t to say that teacher salaries aren’t paltry compared to the training and task we require of them (although my wife does make more at her snooty exurban school than I do at my backwoods college). It’s just that raising pay doesn’t address the real problems. The Quillette article references four areas of concern for current teachers that drive high attrition rates (citing statistics between 8% and 40% nationally): poor administration, oversized classrooms, paperwork, and discipline. Low pay is not among them–after all, teachers know what they’re getting into in that regard before they choose the career.

Administration is an easy target if only because it is so glaringly appropriate. Advocates of higher pay often note the salaries of administrators relative to teachers (a common refrain in higher education as well) to suggest where budgets might be trimmed. The problem isn’t just with pay though; it is with divergent priorities. Administrators are responsible to parents and to school boards. The former cares only about education in the very narrowest sense of ensuring a positive experience for their child. The latter cares about education only in the bureaucratic sense: test scores, attendance rates, funding. Teachers have the luxury neither of committing fully to a single student nor of abstracting all their students into numbers. They must grapple with the lived reality of the classroom. It’s unsurprising then that, as the article notes, there is so much anecdotal evidence of endemic conflict between teachers and administrators.

Overcrowding in classrooms is another familiar target and one that cannot be addressed through pay raises. In fact, as I have already suggested, one radical solution might be to pay teachers less. Alternatively, districts could work to put more non-teaching adults into a classroom. This was the approach at the school where I did my own clinical teaching, and it proved effective as long as the auxiliary staff and teachers worked deliberately together. However it is achieved, it is critical that the ratio of adults to children in a room be improved. A better paid, better educated, better qualified teacher still cannot effectively instruct 25 six-year-olds at once.

The complaint about paperwork is one I have heard floating out in the ether but not one that I have encountered from actual teachers or experienced in my own brief contact with secondary education. Professional development, peer learning communities, and staff meetings are never greeted with much enthusiasm, but neither do they consume much time or intellectual energy. I was once, during clinical teaching, made to dance around the room as part of a professional development, an approach I found demeaning (as many education professional developments often are) but not burdensome. It was enough to make me want to leave the room but not education. My wife, meanwhile, looks forward to her monthly professional development days, has never heard of a fad speaker brought in to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars, and usually has something she has learned to share when she gets home.

The final point, however, on discipline has been a topic of regular discussion in our household over the last year. A new policy in my wife’s district that requires all students to be in the general classroom regardless of behavior (unless they have an IEP that excuses them from the room) has been among the greatest sources of frustration this year. A new policy of negotiating with students (I prefer to think of them as tiny little terrorists whenever I hear the policy explained) ensures that teachers who bring discipline issues to administrators get met with a refresher on how to love their little ones into submission.

I had my own Twlight Zone-esque experiences as a clinical teacher that, in large part, drove me away from secondary education as a career option. In one instance, a boy wore a pornographic sweatshirt to school–it was a mosaic of cartoon girls’ faces contorted in orgasm and covered in semen. (Cartoon semen, not real semen…although adolescent boys being what they are…) How the boy made it to my fourth period class is a mystery, but I reported it to the vice principal. Not unlike the anecdote in the article, my administrator asked me “But how do you know…” (the poor man had apparently never witnessed the female orgasm) and “Maybe he just doesn’t realize…” Fortunately, the student was all to proud to confess when confronted. He had apparently been trying to bate teachers all morning into reporting him, but a surplus of apathy or dearth of courage had gotten him all the way to lunch unscathed.

A less savory incident occurred with a licensure candidate teaching at my school. Some students took a dislike to him and decided to start a rumor that he was a sexual predator who had come to the middle school to look for a new wife. The situation that unfolded was tragic, though not as tragic as it could be. The rumor was reported to the administration, but, because it had not been discovered until close to the end of the day on a Friday, administrators decided to postpone confronting the students until the weekend. The teaching candidate in question twisted in the wind over the weekend, while the students carried on their little joke now attaching an accusatory hashtag to it on social media.

When Monday came around and the students were confronted, they all demurred that it had just been a harmless prank (and one of the central figures, a low performing students, swore he didn’t even know what a pedophile was). Because one of the students was the daughter of a teacher and the granddaughter of another teacher, the administration decided that rather than any disciplinary action they would just ensure no more contact between the students in question and the teaching candidate. When they were in his assigned class, he was banished to the teachers lounge and the cooperating teacher took over. In the end, concerns liability dictated everyone’s behavior and that prospective teacher became a casualty of attrition before he ever got his first full posting.

As with everything on that site, the sounds points in the Quillette article are mixed in with a little casual racism, a lot of self pity, and a fair helping of naïve academic idealism. The last of these is why I really gave up on teaching in public schools. I need to be able to demand more from students and assess on performance, and those are not (for better or worse) the prevailing aims of public education. In the end though, the broader point rings very true and needs to be repeated as often and as loudly as possible: the public education system is broken and more money will not fix it. It isn’t even that it is an incomplete fix. It is the wrong fix. Like giving a Band-Aid to a child with a fever, pay raises may make teachers feel better but they won’t solve the real attrition crisis.

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Creative Schools: The Art of Teaching

Creative Schools CoverHere at the halfway point (and climax?) of his book, Robinson considers the other half of the classroom equation: teachers. Lamenting the fact that the standards movement has made faculty curriculum deliverers rather than teachers (he likens them to FedEx employees for state standards), Robinson argues that an overemphasis on curriculum and assessment has left no room for excellent educators to practice their craft–their art, in his estimation. Of all his chapters, I have found the least to object to in his praise of teachers and the art of teaching. This may have something to do with the fact that I’m already familiar with some of the social science research on the relative importance of good teachers in classrooms. (Harry Wong summarizes it nicely: “Research consistently shows that of all the factors schools can control, the effective teacher has the greatest impact on student achievement.”) Perhaps it simply has to do with the fact that Robinson’s praise of teaching is so ideological and so inoffensively universal that I don’t mind that it lacks the rigor of a strong argument.

And it does, to be sure. He is still aggressively anecdotal. He is still inconsistent in his relationship to testing–having decried the suicidal educational culture in South Korea a few chapters earlier he now praises the country for the “very high bar” set for teachers there. (High standards apparently kill students and grow teachers.) But really, who’s going to argue with this: “Good teachers create the conditions for learning, and poor ones don’t.” No one. And teachers themselves are certainly going to find comfort in the addendum: “Good teachers also know that they are not always in control of these conditions.”

So let’s review for a moment what it is that Robinson believes good teachers do to create these conditions–or rather, what they would do if only the standards movement would allow it. With heavy-handed alliteration, he offers four points:

  • Engage: good teachers promote student engagement with the material, focusing on student motivation before content (curriculum). He makes the point with another folksy aphorism: “[The teacher’s] job is not to teach subjects; it is to teach students.”
  • Enable: good teachers enable their students to learn by knowing which tools, which lessons, which approaches will work with which students. Much of this is built on personal knowledge, “understanding where [students] come from and what is going on in their lives during all of the hours when they aren’t in school.”
  • Expect: good teachers have high expectations for students, willing growth and achievement into existence. (My tongue-in-cheek, power-of-positive-thinking phrasing there notwithstanding, the data is with Robinson on this point as well.)
  • Empower: good teachers encourage students to take risks and to think for themselves. Rather than setting boundaries on learning, good teachers see their primary task as knocking down those barriers that might get in the way of students (who as the last chapter taught us are natural born learners).

After an interminable series of stories that is surely meant to be inspiring but was mostly exhausting, Robinson finally gets around to explaining how we get teachers like these. The answer is better training. It needs to happen at the college level, where a more rigorous program needs to strike a better balance between apprenticeship and theory/history. It needs to happen at the district level, since studies show (or at least the one aggregate study he cites) that cost-cutting on recruitment and training yields only poor teachers, prone to burnout. Perhaps most controversially, Robinson argues that it needs to take priority over subject matter expertise, suggesting that expertise is “usually” but not “always” important and that “it’s never enough.” I won’t quibble here, since he suggests that he’ll tackle the subject more later on in the book.

But I’m no good at not quibbling at all, so after affixing a throaty “amen” to the above suggestions about improving training and untying teachers hands, I want to talk for a moment about Robinson’s definition of creativity. It probably wouldn’t be worth addressing–there are a mountain of imprecisely or problematically deployed terms in the book–except that creativity lies at the heart of the book (it’s baked right in to the title) and of Robinson’s career. He’s “written a lot about this theme in other publications” but he wont “test your patience with” all that here. (In other words, he kindly declines to show us his creativity credentials, preferring to brag briefly about their size and leave the rest of your lurid imagination.)

Here’s the definition Robinson offers:

Creativity is the process of having original ideas that have value.

The two critical components here are originality and value. Robinson immediately waffles on the first, noting that the idea doesn’t have to be original in the whole world so much as original in the experience and context of the creative individual. That’s fair; if Amad and I both invent a time machine separately and without knowledge of each other, each is equally original in the sense of not being the product of lateral diffusion. But dependency isn’t just lateral. Originality is a problematic concept to begin with, something highlighted regularly by historians of technology who now generally look askance at the idea of “invention.” Where innovation exists it is usually microscopically incremental and highly contingent–on existing technologies, on the needs and priorities of the society, and on the discourses and paradigms of the time. A big view of history suggests that creativity on any significant scale happens with almost deterministic certainty. If Eli Whitney hadn’t invented the cotton gin, no respectable historians believes it wouldn’t have been invented otherwise at roughly the same moment in roughly the same technological configuration. Or go back further: if Og hadn’t figured out that he could train the pig to live in his hut instead of hunting it in the forest, no pre-historian doubts that Grog would have figured it out anyway. Creativity as originality is probably a self-congratulatory illusion.

Yet I actually think the question of value is more problematic still, since value in this context is a concept so fluid as to be either useless or dangerous. Value is rooted in various loci, including the individual and the society. What happens when an individual (like Pol Pot) or a society (like Mao’s China) values things that are sharply incompatible with our values. There was creativity in the killing fields and in the Cultural Revolution. I’m not sure Robinson would consider the slaughter or reeducation of intellectuals and artists to be an act of creativity, but unless he wants to establish (and systematically argue for) a concrete, culturally- and personally-transcendent value, he has to live with creativity being something we only want from our teachers and students as long as it suits our palettes.

Meanwhile, I don’t have that problem with conceptualizing “value.” But I cheat; I have religion. (Does Robinson want some for the public schools? Because even I don’t think it belongs there.) And truthfully, I don’t have a problem with Robinson’s argument about the power of teaching. We need better teachers being trained better, equipped better, valued by society, and minimally constrained when it comes to their craft. But then, who does have a problem with that?


This post is part of a running review of Ken Robinson’s Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education. For an introduction and contents of this series, see Creative Schools: Introductory Remarks.
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The Chicago Strike

It is day three of the Chicago teachers’ strike, and I had sincerely hoped that it would come and go before I needed to comment on it. There is too much to be frustrated about here to condense into a few short sentences. Certainly the false sentiment that “both sides have the best interests of the students at heart” never fails to amaze. Obviously they don’t, otherwise the teachers never would have considered striking and the school board never would have allowed a strike. At any cost. More frustrating to me, however, is this nonsense:

The board proposal would leave some 28% of teachers in danger of dismissal within two years, he said, calling that “an insult to our profession.”

Do you know what’s really insulting? That teachers think theirs is the only job you can suck at without getting fired. I realize that isn’t the most eloquent argument I have ever constructed, but my reactions to 350,000 students being refused the already deficient education the state is offering them because teachers who are already making twice what my wife does have undertaken a self-righteous quest for a self-serving “educational justice” prompts a reaction in me more visceral than intellectual. At the end of the day, the problem with education is not the possible lack of continuity that comes from a higher turnover rate for teachers but the motivational impotence of an entrenched tenure system. We don’t just need to pay teachers less, we need to fire more of them. Trim the fat, as it were, and let fresh blood in. It is time to treat teaching like other occupation: perform or find another profession. It’s that simple.

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Pay Teachers Less

The American education system is broken. There are few if any who would argue otherwise. The problems are by no means simple, and the possible solutions are numerous. The administrative overhead of schools is one of the most obvious and easily resolved issues. Superintendents, principals, assistant principals, computer technicians, evaluators, social workers, security guards, secretaries, and countless other occupations which are not directly involved in the education of children, as well as the facilities needed to house this massive bureaucracy, eat up a disproportionate amount of taxpayer dollars. Consolidate the administrations, cut those positions, and slash those salaries. Bureaucrats should not be making four and five times the teachers in the trenches.

Numerous other problems do not lend themselves so easily to correction. The massive effort to centralize and standardize education has removed control from the people who should be served by, and therefore should control, the education process. Curriculum has become a political battleground, with the Right wanting schools to teach intelligent design and nationalistic propaganda and the Left wanting them to teach homosexual history and sexual liberation. The focus on variety—in learning styles, teaching methods, and more—has made education more about entertainment than learning. Teachers unions protect inept teachers, and the tenure system makes it impossible for new, highly qualified teachers to find good jobs.

Even more basic still, and therefore more difficult to change, is a set of cultural assumptions at all levels of society that hamstrings the education process. Parents aren’t interested in engaging with their children’s education. Students have no motivation to apply themselves. Decades of universal, compulsory education through secondary school has made graduation more a right than an accomplishment. The confusion of equal opportunity with equal ability creates an educational environment where teachers must teach to the least capable student, leaving those best able and most interested in learning to fend for themselves. Everyone thinks the system has malfunctioned, and everyone knows whose fault it is: not mine.

My vision for a functional education system would scrap the present manifestation of public education entirely, but if we’re discussing what to do with what we have, I have an unusual suggestion: pay teachers less. That, of course, flies in the face of conventional wisdom (which is a sanitized way of saying “campaign rhetoric”) and some unconventional experiments. There is a mindset which says that the problem with American schools is that education does not pay enough to attract the best and brightest that universities have to offer. If teachers were paid in a way comparable to other certified professionals, then maybe the kind of people we attract to be nurses, doctors, engineers, and lawyers would want to be teachers instead. My wife is a teacher, and so I understand acutely the attractiveness of raising teacher salaries and even the unfairness of their salaries relative to their workloads.

Baiting university students with the promise of more money, however, misunderstands the basic problem. American colleges are not under-producing qualified teachers. In fact, there are so many new teachers being sent out into the workforce, they can’t all find jobs. The ones that can find jobs, often find them as substitutes, teaching assistants, interim teachers, or as unprepared, ill-equipped new teachers in dangerous inner city schools. It is hard to imagine many people who actually spend time around teachers and hear about their problems directly (and constantly) honestly believe that the problem is that they simply lack the skill or financial motivation to do their jobs right.

Here’s the real problem. If my wife is a third grade teacher—and she isn’t, but bear with me—everyday she is faced with the same enigma. In her class she has little Bobby who is reading at a sixth grade level but still hasn’t mastered his multiplication tables. She also has little Sarah who is functionally illiterate but already has a rudimentary grasp of fourth grade math concepts. Little Mitchell is right on track with his learning if only my wife can convince him to sit in his seat and do his work. Little Rene is always too sleepy to pay attention, while little Marcus still doesn’t have a working grasp of conversational English. In addition to these five, she has twenty to twenty-five more students, equally diverse. Now, it doesn’t matter if you are Stephen Hawking and Steve Jobs and Mister Rogers all rolled up into one. There is no way anyone, no matter how qualified and no matter how well-paid, is going to come up with a multi-subject day of learning that is going to meet most or all of the needs of that class. Teaching devolves into learning-themed crowd management. In seven years, my wife is teaching tenth grade: Bobby is in remedial math, Sarah is cheating her way through high school English, Mitchell is on ADHD medication that has retarded his learning, Rene is pregnant, and Marcus is the father. The problem is compounded.

At $35,000 a year, my wife certainly isn’t getting paid enough to deal with that, even if it is only for nine months out of the year. It is hard to imagine, however, that one teacher making $60,000 is going to be able to solve the problem any better. On the other hand, two teachers making $30,000 each and managing two separate classes of only ten students each might just make a dent. Sure, there is still going to be diversity that needs to be overcome. Students will still present unique problems that will distract from an ideal educational environment. Some potential teachers might even be diverted from entering the field because of the reduced pay (though other ways to incentivize, such as broader loan forgiveness, could easily compensate for that). In the end, however, the net result will be a shift from the current reality of crowd management closer to an ideal experience of educational mentorship.

Of course, you could never actually pay teachers less. The unions wouldn’t allow it (and frankly, with the cost of getting a degree reaching meteoric heights, teachers couldn’t afford it). But it was never realistic to raise teacher salaries either, as that would inevitably cut into the lucrative business of multiplying administrative positions and bloating educational bureaucracies. Still, isn’t it nice to imagine a world where teachers could afford to train themselves to become educators and then actually be allowed to educate children? It distracts from the unsettling reality of one twenty-four year old woman in inner-city Atlanta trying desperately to get thirty nine-year-olds to meet state and national proficiency benchmarks on standardized tests so that she can continue to make payments on her six figure student loan debt. It’s almost as if prayer in schools isn’t really the issue after all.

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