Up With Teachers, Not So Much With Unions

Over the next couple of weeks, youngsters across the land will strap on their SpongeBob backpacks and lace up their new Converses. They’ll board school buses, sharpen their pencils (and turn on their iPads), and settle in their classroom chairs, eager-eyed and ready to learn. But for a lot of teachers in a lot of states, the 2011-12 academic year won’t begin with the same cheerful anticipation. More and more educators, we’re hearing, are dragging to school with grimaces rather than grins on their visages. September looks like worn-out June. They feel the burden of societal disrespect, of distrust, of being blamed by the public for all that ails American education.

They’re wrong—fortunately. The new Phi Delta Kappan/Gallup survey makes clear that most adults value their children’s teachers. Seventy-one percent say they “have trust and confidence in the men and women who are teaching children in the public schools” and 67 percent say they would like to have one of their own children become a public-school teacher.

That’s tons more positive than the public’s view of schools in general: Just 17 percent give A or B grades to them (though Americans continue to give high marks to their own children’s schools—and this figure, say the pollsters, is rising).

Respondents were also asked to grade the teachers, principals, and school board in their own community. Here again, teachers fared best: Sixty-nine percent of respondents would award their town’s teachers either an A or a B versus 54 percent for principals, and a meager 37 percent for the school board. (This widening recognition of the governance failings of our public-school systems is, in its way, heartening.) Parents—interestingly—rank the worst: A discouraging 36 percent of respondents would give their communities’ parents top marks for “bringing up their children.”

So whence cometh the perceived public ire?  PDK and Gallup lift the lid a bit: Forty-seven percent of survey respondents feel that unionization (of teachers) has hurt “the quality of public education in the United States” compared with 26 percent who say it has helped. (Are you paying attention, Randi and Dennis? Your organizations don’t have a lot of fans. Even school boards fare better!)

Some aspects of school teaching seem permanent, even eternal, but in many ways teaching today has changed from my own student days and it’s likely to be even more different tomorrow.

In the last half-century, unionization has flooded the schools (and is now slowly starting to ebb—or be pushed back). Possibly more important, though, has been the sheer growth in the number of public-school teachers. In the 1950s, the crude ratio of students to teachers across American K-12 education was 27:1. Today it’s 14:1. That doesn’t mean everybody’s classes are smaller but it does mean that we now employ an enormous number of teachers—in the ballpark of 3.5 million—and essentially all the extra money we’ve put into public education has gone to pay for their salaries and benefits. That’s why teacher pay has simply kept pace with the cost of living and why these levels of compensation in much of the U.S. today aren’t sufficient to attract and keep a great many of our ablest college graduates. (Mercifully, they attract and keep some!) If today’s ratio were still 27:1, today’s school budgets would be sufficient to pay an average teacher salary north of $100,000.

As for what will be different in the teachers’ world tomorrow, five developments need to be noted and taken seriously.

First, technology is going to have a major impact, both on what happens within traditional schools and classrooms and, more broadly, on what we mean by “school” and where and when learning occurs. Most likely, it will mean that we need fewer flesh-and-blood teachers sitting in the classroom with Johnnie and Susie—though we may need more aides and tutors and such to provide face-to-face explanations, pats on the back, and (when needed) stern looks and reminders to remain on task. (Expect a paper soon from our “Creating Sound Policy for Digital Learning” series on the specifics of these shifts.)

Second, school budgets are going to be flat (or falling) for the foreseeable future—and looming deficits in retirement and pension funds almost certainly mean that the take-home pay of practicing  teachers will see no real-dollar growth and could well decline. (The only rational antidote to that is, in fact, employing fewer individuals and paying them better.)

Third, there’s a revolution underway in teacher evaluation and many of the HR practices associated with it, including retention, tenure, compensation, promotions, and layoffs. It’s rocky, to be sure, but we’re gradually coming to gauge teachers more by what their students learn and less by the credentials that they carry. (And this isn’t just a cause trumpeted by wonks and reform junkies. Per yesterday’s poll, 74 percent of adult Americans say that it’s important to incorporate student test-score data into teacher evaluations.)

Fourth, big changes are brewing in teacher preparation and licensure as ed schools come under fire, as “alternate routes” proliferate, as programs like Teach For America get greater traction, and as more attention is paid to what a teacher knows about her subject than to what pedagogy courses she took in college.

Fifth, though the system hasn’t quite made this adjustment yet, we’re seeing that a non-trivial fraction of teachers are people who want to do this work for a time, before or after they do something else, rather than make a lifelong career of it. We’ll likely evolve a set of arrangements that capitalizes on the short-termers as well as the classroom careerists.

As we contemplate this future, it will surely help if teachers themselves, with or (more likely) without their unions’ help, prove willing to experiment, to grow, to listen, and to learn. And it will help if all the rest of us—even the curmudgeonly crew at Fordham—pause to thank today’s hardworking educators for selfless, challenging, and not very well compensated work on which our kids’ future and our country’s prospects depend so heavily.

-Chester E. Finn, Jr.

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