Attracting the Best and Brightest to Teaching

Quick: List the most important jobs in America.  Odds are “teacher” made that list.  

According to a Harris Interactive Poll, teachers ranked among the five most prestigious jobs in America. That is why Lee Iacocca, former president and CEO of Chrysler said, “In a completely rational society, the best of us would be teachers and the rest of us would have to settle for something less, because passing civilization along from one generation to the next ought to be the highest honor and the highest responsibility anyone could have.”  

Yet today we face a struggle in recruiting and keeping our best and brightest into the teaching profession.After I graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2011, I was a City Year Corps Member in Washington, D.C. public schools.  I have been on the ground in these schools, I have seen the teachers and befriended them, and I know their struggles.  From my experience, the most pertinent issues that might deter college students from being teachers and keeping quality young teachers in that field are the cost of their degrees compared to the financial benefits and the constant barrage of testing that they will face and be judged upon.

With the rising costs of college and the current state of the jobs market, potential pay when a student gets out of school is an important consideration.  The median pay for teachers in 2012 was $43,400.  

That teachers are underpaid is not a new revelation.  55% of Americans and nearly 70% of millennials believe that American teachers are underpaid.  

Comparing it to other degrees though, we begin to see what a raw deal teachers are getting.  According to a Bankrate.com study, if a teacher uses ten percent of his or her yearly income to repay a private student loan, the average teacher will take nearly 22 years. In contrast, a student could spend the same amount of time in college and get a degree in Advertising, Economics, Civil Engineering, Microbiology or Accounting, making more money and repaying their loans in less than half the time.  

The small pay for the work is not a  surprise to many new teachers, but what may surprise them is how they are valued.  Many states incentivize staying in the teaching profession with the promise of higher pay in the future, and while this promise is probably successful in getting many teachers over the difficult transition between teaching in theory in college and in practice for their profession, few states value teachers in more demanding subjects such as Science, Technology, Engineering and Math over teachers in more subjective subjects such as English and Social Studies.  That is, until next month.  

In Douglas County, Colorado, the suburban county between Colorado Springs and Denver  the school board there will start to pay teachers of harder to recruit subjects, such as Science and Math, more than easier to to recruit subjects, such as elementary Physical Education.  While a somewhat controversial move by backing away from tenure, it will be interesting to see how well this system works.  If implemented nationally, it would provide a much higher incentive for students of Science and Math to impart their knowledge to the next generation, making the teaching profession more lucrative for those subjects.  

However Douglas County, one of the richest counties in the nation, is a unique case due to its wealth and the current way we fund schools through property taxes. The lowest-tier pay will be around $62,000, and the highest tier will top out at $94,000.  While that pay scale is clearly not one that many school districts can follow, until we reform how schools are funded, it will be an interesting experiment to watch unfold.

While money is among the chief concerns for those going into teaching, once we attract these teachers, we face an uphill battle keeping them in needed areas.  From my experience, many of the teachers were qualified and had great command of the material they were teaching, yet their performance was judged based on several tests that were given throughout the year, and finally on one cumulative test toward the end of the year.  Instead of designing a curriculum that they could teach throughout the year to get their students to learn, teachers were forced into a curriculum that they knew their students would be tested on at the end of the section, typically six to eight weeks, and specific skills that students are supposed to master.

At the end of the year came the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System, which was provided to students for the intent to see how well their teacher taught the material.  It did not have weight on the student passing or failing the grade, but it was only to see how well teachers had prepared them to perform on a multiple choice test.  

I’ll tell you honestly, it was a struggle to make sure that students cared about the tests, which lasted over a week.  Test-driven mandates only worsen the experience for students and teachers by teaching students how to take tests rather than develop the building blocks of learning that students will have to use in the next grade.  This robs students as well as teachers. Students are not learning, and teachers are only teaching what they have to teach to receive an “effective” grade at the end of the year.

Teaching is a difficult, but essential job, which is why Lee Iacocca called it the “highest honor” anyone could have. Yet today we find it difficult to recruit and keep our best and brightest in this crucial profession.  It is because teachers struggle to find the best ways to engage students and still receive an “effective” grade at the end of the year, in order to keep these jobs where compensation is not nearly equal to effort.  

We must, as a nation, reform the system that rewards teachers for their sacrifices. Not only by making sure that we have teachers in the most demanding subjects, but also by creating a better system that rewards teachers who teach students how to learn, not what to learn.  

Federal programs that cancel portions of government loans, such as Stafford and Perkins loans, and only after a certain period of time with a maximum of about half the costs of college, are just a start.  We must change the way schools are funded, spreading the wealth around equally, so that D.C. Public Schools have similar access to the resources that are available in Douglas County. Only after we reduce teachers’ struggles will we be able to unleash the untapped potential of American children, to build a better future.

The Education Opportunity Network, in collaboration with the Campaign for America’s Future have released a declaration to reform education, titled “Education Declaration to Rebuild America,” signed by such prominent Americans as Robert Reich, Diane Ravitch, Jonathan Kozol and Dave Eggers.  I have fleshed out several of their recommendations in more detail here, such as :

  1. Equitable Funding and Resources: Fair and sufficient school funding freed from over-reliance on locally targeted property taxes, so those who face the toughest hurdles receive the greatest resources. Investments are also needed in out-of-school factors affecting students, such as supports for nutrition and health services, public libraries, after school and summer programs, and adult remedial education — along with better data systems and technology.
  2. Teaching Quality: Recruitment, training, and retention of well-prepared, well-resourced, and effective educators and school leaders, who can provide extended learning time and deeper learning approaches, and are empowered to collaborate with and learn from their colleagues.
  3. Better Assessments: High-quality diagnostic assessments that go beyond test-driven mandates and help teachers strengthen the classroom experience for each student.

While these are less than half the suggestions of the Declaration, I urge you to read it, and if you agree with its premise, add your name as a signer here.

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