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Is There a Future for Teaching?

"Wanted: College educated professionals willing to work long hours in an underfunded, highly politicized environment increasingly populated by a high proportion of at risk youth struggling with special needs and poverty in the home. Compensation and benefits uncertain due to reductions in funding and the efforts of governors and state legislators to cut public employee pension benefits and limit the ability to engage in collective bargaining. Continued employment and/or advancement will be determined by unproven metrics and constantly changing experiments in data driven assessment."

This is, of course, a fictitious job posting. But it's no joke, either. Across the country this is, in fact, the reality facing prospective teachers. Is it any wonder that fewer and fewer young people view teaching as a viable and rewarding vocation? Former United Church of Christ executive for public education, Jan Resseger, reported recently in her daily blog that we are already seeing alarming drops in enrollment in teacher training programs. https://janresseger.wordpress.com/2015/03/10/why-do-so-few-college-students-want-to-be-teachers/ "The numbers are grim among some of the nation's largest producers of new teachers: In California, enrollment is down 53 percent over the past five years. It's down sharply in New York and Texas as well. In North Carolina, enrollment is down nearly 20 percent in three years."

Reasons for the decline aren't hard to decipher and have little to do with any sudden loss of interest on the part of young people in being a part of the education of our nation's children.

  • Inequities and cuts in public school funding mean that highly trained professionals frequently don't have the tools to effectively do their work. In many districts teachers don't have enough text books for their students and must buy basic things like crayons and paper with their own money. It isn't likely to get better. At least 30 states were providing less funding per student in 2014 than they were in 2008.
  • Urban and rural school districts have been forced to eliminate school nurses, social workers, librarians, art and music teachers, leaving teachers with larger classes and fewer colleagues available to establish a healthy and rich learning environment.
  • Increasingly teachers are assessed by student test scores and rewarded or punished accordingly. In most cases these assessments don't take into account critical factors such as class size, household income of students, number of special needs children in the classrooms, the prevalence of violence in the community, etc. Teachers whose scores have gone up often have no idea why; likewise, teachers whose student scores go down are equally baffled. Merit increases or bonuses, along with threats and discipline, increasingly feel quixotic and subjective.
  • States and cities that have grossly underfunded their teacher pension programs for years are now in crisis, and expect the teachers to take the blame and bear the cost through benefit reductions. In Illinois, where the new governor resolutely refuses to increase taxes to pay for past obligations, public employees are now labeled as participants in a "corrupt political bargain" simply because they expect to receive their promised pensions.
  • Salaries are stagnant. Between 2003 and 2013 average teacher salaries went down 3.2% according to the National Education Association. Thirty four states saw real declines in average teacher salaries, adjusting for inflation.

How are policy makers responding? Doubling down on testing as the principal metric for student and teacher assessment is the dominant national approach. Expansion of charters has led to some successes that are more than balanced by abysmal failures. In most cases charters are no better and no worse than public schools. The one constant is that charter operators are not troubled by the "annoying" presence of teachers' unions. Salaries, as a result, are low and protection of teachers' rights is limited. Highly touted Teach For America may have enriched the professional development of some talented young people and filled some gaps in struggling districts. But for three quarters of TFA teachers the program is simply a brief, two to three year way station on the road to other professions. In Wisconsin, Scott Walker, currently hovering near the top of the Republican presidential beauty pageant, has proposed replacing traditional teacher licensing based on university based pedagogical training with evidence of relevant work experience in a field and passing a state administered test. The theory, apparently, is that rather than making the profession attractive again it is enough just to make it easier to get in front of a classroom.

The real surprise is that so many wonderful teachers persevere. There was a time when our cities and towns were dominated by architecturally beautiful public schools, court houses, and houses of worship. These three institutions were seen to be worthy of our devotion, our respect, and our investment. Each was committed in its own way to the public good. Now we erect utilitarian boxes that look shabby after just a few years. Houses of worship with their own problems turn inward, leaving the schools to fend for themselves. Leaders of government systematically undermine respect for our schools in order to eviscerate investment, turning more and more of our children over either to indifference or to the self-interest of private investors.

The moral imperative and spiritual grandeur of teaching our children has inspired many would be teachers and will continue to do so. That alone, however, will not be enough to meet the needs of our children. In the absence of the support and respect that governmental and religious institutions used to offer to dignify and elevate the profession, we will likely get what we pay for.

John H. Thomas
March 26, 2015

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