Quality education requires making teaching an attractive job
Jeff Chapman was my daughter’s fifth-grade teacher at Boulevard Elementary School in 1992. He co-taught with his wife, Laurie Chapman, who was my son’s teacher a few years later. Parents and students couldn’t wait for fifth grade. They knew it would be exceptional!
In that era, before testing ran schools, these teachers inspired students and trusted parents. They were wonderful partners and they were school leaders, innovators, and people who researched their fields. They experimented and were willing to take risks and bend rules to break down barriers to equal results with rambunctious pre-teens. Much of my respect for teachers comes from knowing them.
Because teachers are such important participants in the development of our children, it is easy to forget that for them it is also a job. Jeff Chapman is the person who awakened me to the reality that teaching my children was his employment. He chose teaching as a way to contribute to the lives of children and as the way to support his own family.
A 2016 report from the Economic Policy Institute titled “The Teacher Pay Gap Is Wider than Ever” indicates that it is harder and harder for teachers to rely on their jobs to support their families. A review of labor statistics that compares teachers’ incomes to those of people with comparable levels of education in other fields shows that teachers are losing ground. In 1979, teachers earned about 5.5 percent less than their peers. By 2015 that had widened to 17 percent less.
As taxpayers we may begrudge the seemingly lucrative pay of teachers, but we shouldn’t. They are just making it, like almost everyone else in the middle class these days, and they are making an income sacrifice to teach.
Public schools have always depended on women to teach. Female teachers had few other employment options so they were paid less. In the 1970s, teaching was one of the best career opportunities for women. They earned about 4 percent more than women in other fields then, but that has changed. Women have more options now, and those who teach earn nearly 14 percent less than their peers who are not teachers. Because women dominate the teaching field, wages are depressed, so men who enter the field fare even worse. In 1979, male teachers earned about 22 percent less than other men with comparable education, and today it is 25 percent less.
The same report indicates that, while the demand for effective teachers is growing, the supply is not. Women have more options, teachers are “less satisfied and more stressed” because of testing and accountability that blames them, and the pay gap is growing. All this makes the choice to teach much less desirable. School funding took a hit during the recession, and now privatization is draining critical resources from school district budgets. This limits what districts spend on their teachers.
Today, fewer young people are entering the profession. More mid-career teachers are leaving early, and many of our experienced teachers are reaching retirement age. We have a teacher shortage, and it is going to grow.
Teachers are the key in-school factor affecting student learning. If we don’t invest in them and respect them as professionals who do work that is highly valued by our community and society, the future of education is in trouble.
I am dumbfounded that our policymakers acknowledge the importance of teachers but twist and distort this truth into placing blame on teachers. Teachers are responsible for about 10 percent of test score results, yet we insist on measuring kids with these tests and evaluating teachers with their results. None of this really has anything to do with the quality of education children receive or the quality of teaching that their teachers provide.
Education policy that measures and ranks and labels does not produce better results, nor does it help teachers reach their potential as resources for children. The system does not acknowledge out-of-school factors in student test scores, so teachers and schools that serve the neediest learners take the biggest hit. The negative labels don’t improve learning. They discourage teachers from working with the neediest students and make it easier for voters to disinvest in education.
As a community we need to look beyond the labels and remember the teachers who have changed our lives. We need to create an appealing workplace for great teachers and fight policies that undermine them.
If the Chapmans were starting their careers now, would they choose teaching? Quality education depends on making sure teaching is a job people want.
Susie Kaeser is a longtime resident of Cleveland Heights and former director of Reaching Heights. She serves on the national board of Parents for Public Schools.