The end of August introduces another academic year, and articles on education appear in newspapers and magazines for the general public. Most of the articles I read focus on building literacy skills, engaging students, encouraging teacher collaboration, or similar aspects of the daily work of teaching. Recently, an article in the Washington Post caught my attention and prompted me to reflect on my experience over the last twenty years as a professional educator. My initial idealistic belief that our society and culture highly values education and learning has been tempered by my experience; I am mystified that our society does not value education. We allow federal and state legislatures to minimally fund education every year. Educational funding lacks the necessary dollars for quality education and strips teachers and schools of the resources necessary to provide our youth with the most relevant research based learning experiences. If we as a nation truly value an educated, civic-minded populace, we would enthusiastically fund education as a priority. By law, all children in every state are required to attend school to the age of 16 (17 in many states), but compulsory education is consistently underfunded. We don’t invest in educating our youth. It is not only about teacher salaries, although that is an important factor in providing quality research based education. Retention of experienced degreed professional educators provides the most effective means to educate our citizens from kindergarten through vocational school, college, and graduate school programs.
In her article, “Think teachers aren’t paid enough? It’s worse than you think,” Valerie Strauss cites a study that addresses the decline of teacher salaries. The study by the Economic Policy Institute includes longitudinal evidence not only that teacher salaries are shrinking, but also that the number of college graduates entering the teaching profession is steadily decreasing. Professionals who embark on a teaching career are incrementally penalized over the course of their career. The study summary states that “the bottom line is that the teacher compensation penalty grew by 11 percentage points from 1994 to 2015… [and] the erosion of relative teacher wages has fallen more heavily on experienced teachers than on entry-level teachers.” In other words, degreed teachers who stay in the profession earn less as they gain experience over the course of a career, whereas degreed professionals in other professions earn more as they gain experience over the course of a career. Teachers are not compensated in proportion to the work or the educational preparation required in this career field. College graduates are not choosing teaching as a career. If the teaching profession is not valued by our society, education is de-valued. As a nation, we appear to value military spending above all other concerns – military spending is more than 50% of the entire US budget. We fund what we treasure most highly. The 2015 Federal budget for education was a “hefty” 6%.
We fund what we treasure most highly. The 2015 Federal budget for education was a “hefty” 6%.
The Economic Policy Institute study notes that “an effective teacher is the most important school-based determinant of education outcomes” and teachers across the nation know it to be true. Effective, experienced teachers in all content areas contribute significantly to overall student achievement, preparedness for vocational and academic pursuits beyond secondary education, and a well-informed civic society that values critical evaluation of laws, public policy, and our global contribution to intercultural relations. Effective teachers have earned degrees in their content area from accredited universities with a quality teacher education program. Teaching as a profession is not just about presenting a lesson; educators are responsible for the well-being their students as well as providing content instruction, developing student self-discipline, and instilling a sense of wonder in learning. Managing thirty young people in one room for between 50 and 90 minutes at a time involves planning, diplomacy, interpersonal and conflict resolution skills, content expertise, flexibility due to interruptions and distractions, an understanding of human growth and development, patience, and attentiveness. Teachers must establish and maintain a welcoming, disciplined environment for ALL students – especially the students who are the most difficult to work with.
In the past twenty years, educators have been increasingly required to implement programs and policies including marketing for schools and districts (to attract students who will raise test scores, and thereby boost school preference which leads to better funding, which leads to attracting students…), sponsoring evening and weekend activities, increased community and parent advocacy meetings and events, and student counseling and scheduling (these additional expectations vary across the nation). Building relationships in the community is an important aspect of our educational system, yet teachers are often expected to volunteer personal time in order to develop those community connections. Many teachers across the nation devote their personal time and spend their personal money to promote activities that enhance the educational programs in their communities, and they do so because teachers are nurturers by nature, a chief characteristic in the profession. Teachers care about their students and their school communities. Teachers collaborate in professional learning communities to create assessments and analyze student achievement data (an important factor in insuring that students learn the skills necessary to compete in a global economy). To maintain a professional license, teachers must also engage in continuing education through graduate level professional development courses. Additional duties and expectations detract from the primary responsibilities of a teacher: instruction of students, lesson planning, content delivery, lesson evaluation, re-teaching, academic assessment, and scaffolding skills for the next step in skill acquisition. Many schools and classes are overcrowded and teachers are required to deliver programmed curriculum designed for increasing assessment scores rather than curriculum designed to promote genuine authentic learning experiences for students.
According to research on the brain and learning, students – especially secondary students – learn best when they believe that lessons are relevant to their own lives. Even the best common core generic scripted program curricula rarely allow teachers to modify lessons and make learning meaningful and relevant for their students. Skills addressed by the common core standards are necessary; however, mandated curricula hinders teachers from addressing ‘teachable moments’ and deviating from scripted curricula in order to connect with students and employ meaningful relevance to skills based instruction. Students need to develop, practice, and master skills, but that doesn’t mean that lessons need be scripted for one size fits all. In fact, the MORE interesting and relevant to their own lives, geography, and culture, the more engaged students will be, even when learning skills they think they have already ‘mastered.’ Many students will say, but I already KNOW how to perform this skill (calculate, read, write, argue, find evidence, etc.). Effective and experienced teachers develop meaningful lessons that scaffold previously introduced skills; students engaged in such meaningful lessons focus on the content and relevance while practicing the skill at an advanced level. Retaining effective experienced teachers is necessary to improve the learning experience and academic achievement of students across disciplines and age levels.
As a society, the United States does not place a high value on education because publicly funded education has a low fiscal priority. When our society invests in truly making education a priority for our democratic republic, all of our citizens will contribute to and focus on the business of providing meaningful instruction to the most vulnerable aspects of our society: our prosperity and our posterity.
Perhaps I have not lost my idealistic belief in education and learning after all: I still believe that this nation will make education a priority. I just hope I live long enough to witness the influence an educated society can wield for the benefit of all.
*Insufficient funding is only one flaw in the US educational system. Economic dissonance across geographic and cultural regions contribute to the flaws in the system. The current era of ‘a trophy for every child’ and age based grade progression rather than content competency and developmental readiness are issues hindering the educational system as well.