In this Teacher Appreciation Week, Fair Pay Would Show Our Teachers They Really Are Appreciated

In 1962, when my mother taught first grade in Havre, Montana, she felt appreciated as a teacher even though the rule was that she had to take the kids outside for recess unless it was below 15 degrees below zero. (Remember that wind chill as a term hadn’t been invented in those days.) She wasn’t paid particularly well, but school did close for an hour at midday, while everybody went home for lunch. She saw her students’ parents all the time in the grocery store, however, and she knew that her opinions and her expertise were valued.

This week has been formally designated as the 2019 Teacher Appreciation Week. But teachers these days aren’t really appreciated. While the Washington Post reports that, merely to sit on Boeing’s board of directors, Caroline Kennedy and Nikki Haley are paid $324,000 annually in cash and stock to attend a day-long meeting every-other-month, school teachers’ salaries haven’t been keeping up at all.

The Economic Policy Institute’s Sylvia Allegretto and Lawrence Mishel just released a report about persistent growth in a teacher wage penalty, which reached an all time high in 2018: “(R)elative teacher wages, as well as total compensation—compared with the wages and total compensation of other college graduates—have been eroding for over half a century.  These trends influence the career choices of college students, biasing them against the teaching profession, and also make it difficult to keep current teachers in the classroom.”

Allegretto and Mishel explain the trend: “(W)omen teachers enjoyed a wage premium in 1960, meaning they were paid more than comparably educated and experienced women workers in other fields. By the early 1980s, the wage premium for women teachers had transformed into a wage penalty… The mid-1990s marks the start of a period of sharply eroding teacher weekly wages and an escalating teacher weekly wage penalty.  Average weekly wages of public school teachers (adjusted for inflation) decreased $21 from 1996-2018, from $1,216 to $1,195 (in 2018 dollars).  In contrast, weekly wages of college graduates rose by $323, from $1,454 to $1,777, over this period.”

And the wage penalty is for both women and men: “The wage premium that women teachers enjoyed in the 1960s and 1970s has long been erased…. Our previous research found that in 1960 women teachers earned 14.7 percent more in weekly wages than comparable women workers… And the wage premium for women teachers gradually faded over the 1980s and 1990s, until it was eventually replaced by a large and growing wage penalty in the 2000s and 2010s.  In 2018, women public school teachers were making 15.1 percent less in wages than comparable women workers.  The wage penalty for men teachers is much larger. The weekly wage penalty for men teachers was 17.8 percent in 1979… In 2018, men teaching public school were making 31.5 percent less in wages than comparable men in other professions.” Overall in 2018, the wage penalty for school teachers reached 21.4 percent.

Teachers benefits, on average, are higher than those of workers in other professions.  Allegretto and Mishel explain: “As a result of their growing benefit share of compensation, teachers are enjoying a ‘benefits advantage’ over other professionals… However this benefits advantage has not been enough to offset the growing wage penalty… The bottom line is that the teacher (total) compensation penalty grew by 10.2 percentage points from 1993-2018.”

There is not a lot of mystery behind how the teacher pay gap has grown.  Allegretto and Mishel blame a wave of tax cuts across the states for the revenue shortages that have driven down compensation for teachers: “The erosion of teacher weekly wages relative to weekly wages of other college graduates… reflects state policy decisions rather than the result of revenue challenges brought on by the Great Recession. A recent study… found that most of the 25 states that were still spending less for K-12 education in 2016 than before the recession had also enacted tax cuts between 2008 and 2016.  In fact, eight of the 10 states with the largest reductions in education funding since 2008 were states that had reduced their overall ‘tax effort’—meaning through tax cuts or other measures they were collecting less in taxes relative to their capacity to generate tax revenue. These eight states were Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Virginia.”

Lots of experts including the Economic Policy Institute and the Learning Policy Institute have been tracking the result of extremely difficult teaching conditions in understaffed schools along with low pay for teachers. They have identified what they call the resulting widespread teacher shortage, particularly a shortage of well prepared and experienced teachers.  And they have emphasized the tragedy of increasing churn in the teaching profession as more and more teachers give up and leave the classroom.

But the teacher-blogger, Peter Greene insists we call what is happening something different: “There is no teacher shortage. There’s a slow-motion walkout, a one-by-one exodus, a piecemeal rejection of the terms of employment for educators in 2019… ‘We’ve got a teacher shortage,’ assumes… that there just aren’t enough teachers out there in the world…. That’s where teacher shortage talk takes us—to a search for teacher substitutes. Maybe we can just lower the bar. Only require a college degree in anything at all…  A few hundred students with a ‘mentor’ and a computer would be just as good as one of those teachers that we’re short of, anyway, right?”

Greene defines the problem another way: “Teaching has become such unattractive work that few people want to do it.”  And having defined the problem, he believes there are some ways to address it: “‘Offer them more money’… is certainly an Economics 101 answer… But as the #Red forEd walkouts remind us, money isn’t the whole issue.  Respect. Support.  The tools necessary to do a great job.  Autonomy.  Treating people like actual functioning adults  These are all things that would make teaching jobs far more appealing… There are other factors that make the job less attractive. The incessant focus on testing. The constant stream of new policies crafted by people who couldn’t do a teacher’s job for fifteen minutes. The huge workload, including a constant mountainous river of… paperwork…. the moves to deprofessionalize the work.  The national scale drumbeat of criticism and complaint….”

I believe the collapse in respect for teachers has also been driven by the strategy of the No Child Left Behind Act, which neglected to fund adequate staffing and school improvement and set out to motivate educators with the fear their school would be named “failing” if they could not raise test scores quickly for all children. They were supposed to work harder and smarter. We now know that No Child Left Behind’s demand that all schools could make their students proficient by 2014 didn’t work. Arne Duncan had to waiver states from this requirement to avoid an embarrassing reality: All American schools were going to be branded “failing.”  But today our national education strategy is still driven by the same test-and-punish.

Harvard University’s Daniel Koretz warns us about the dangers of our test-based accountability regime in a 2017 book, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better. Koretz is an expert on the design and use of standardized testing as the basis for evaluating of schools and schoolteachers. He demonstrates how this strategy unfairly brands teachers as failures when they teach in the schools serving our society’s poorest and most vulnerable children: “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores—and, particularly important in this system, more kids who aren’t ‘proficient’—than others. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do… Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.”  (The Testing Charade, pp. 129-130)

We have been watching a yearlong wave of walkouts by teachers—a state-by-state cry for help from a profession of hard-working, dedicated public servants disgusted with despicable working conditions, the lack of desperately needed services for their students, and insultingly low pay. They have showed us what would support them and their students: smaller classes, more counselors and social workers, school nurses, librarians, a generous and enriched curriculum, and salaries adequate enough to pay the rent for a modest apartment, attract new teachers to the profession, and keep experienced teachers.

In this 2019 Teacher Appreciation Week it is a tragedy that so many state legislatures continue to debate further tax cuts. The situation calls to mind the warning of McMaster University education professor of Henry Giroux: “Public schools are at the center of the manufactured breakdown of the fabric of everyday life. They are under attack not because they are failing, but because they are public…”

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