Faulting Teachers Is Not Fixing Education

During the four decades I have been around state politics, arguments over the quality, cost, and access to education have dominated the agenda.  Education funding and performance constitute the highest intensity controversy zone in Pennsylvania politics, apart from abortion.  This is partly explained by each of us holding views and perceptions shaped by our experience in going through the system, which are naturally dissimilar to those of many others.

Concepts such as quality of education and access to opportunity cannot be reduced to mathematical formulas.  Upping spending gives advocates a sense of accomplishment, but it too rarely drives consequential changes in the structure or process.  No education equation ensures that higher spending + modern facilities + good intentions = guaranteed student performance.

Given the failure of state government to approve substantial solutions to long-running controversies, say property taxes, public frustration boils over.  For a lot of folks, the default position in these debates is to blame teachers for every ill.  Logically, this is misconceived.  Practically, it is counterproductive.

Fortunately, there seems a growing recognition that diminishing the teaching profession is subtracting from efforts to revive, reinvigorate, and transform education.  Still, every proposal labeled as reform does not necessarily live up to the billing.

In rolling out this year’s proposed state budget, crafted to be less contentious than its predecessors, Governor Wolf offered an education proposal prompting plenty of discussion.  He recommended raising the minimum starting salary for teachers from the current paltry $18,000 to $45,000, and included state funding to pay for its assumed direct effect.

If this was designed to be a conversation starter about improving teacher compensation by means of a larger state contribution, there is promise here.  If this is the complete plan, then it is substantially flawed.  Questions and concerns abound.  How do you fairly raise the floor without pushing up the entire scale in the affected districts?  Does it necessitate reopening contracts that might have been recently settled after years of strife?  Does the state’s initial contribution sucker school boards into higher local taxes to pay for the extras this involves?  What is the effect in neighboring districts?

How this will ripple across salary scales, how much the true costs will be, and which level of government picks up the tab for associated costs (taxpayers are on the hook no matter how that one sorts out), and possible implications for charter school instructors, are all pertinent uncertainties.  Working out the financials of a comprehensive plan is likely to be tough going.  Just as creating equity among school districts is complicated and expensive, the same is true for grafting fairness onto 500 separate teacher salary scales.

This move would not occur in a vacuum.  Picking an elevated arbitrary number as a minimum salary can cause problems for education-community relations, if too much distance is put between educator salaries and those of private sector workers.

This is not meant to read last rites over the concept.  Rather, it is to recommend a larger look at the possibilities of a revamped approach.  Could this represent the sort of policy U-turn Pennsylvania needs to make in doing a better job of attracting and retaining qualified instructors?  Could this be paired with another shake the status quo measure such as a merit pay plan?

Two of the most constantly and ferociously debated issues are education and health care.  The commonality is most evident in arguments over costs, where the disputants look at the same numbers and draw dramatically opposed conclusions.  The conservative side of the argument is that results are not commensurate with the money being spent.  The liberal side holds that severely constrained spending leads to harmful triage on services and is a major cause of spotty results.

We intuitively recognize health care does not function well without a sufficient corps of trained nurses, and education struggles without sufficient dedicated teachers.  Yet, these key professionals are frequently the targets of critics unhappy with the cost and quality of care or instruction.

A recent commentary piece connected the two professions.  Jaimy Lee, the Healthcare News Editor at LinkedIn, put it pointedly:

“Overworked and saddled with debt, nurses turn to side gigs to make ends meet.”

“Nursing is one of the most in-demand jobs in the U.S.  But those in the field say that stagnant pay, a high-pressure work culture, student loan debt, and emotional burnout have made the profession increasingly unattractive.”

“In many ways, the trend mirrors the same issues faced by teachers, another predominantly female workforce that has also struggled with stagnant pay and a worsening work environment.”

We all profess to want the best for education, but more people are balking at paying extra to achieve it.  Not only are we chasing good folks away from education, we are failing to attract individuals who can make a crucial difference for harder to reach students.

At a time when there is increasing competition for emerging talent in a hot economy, the number of education majors is dropping.  The education skeptic will say, with the student population declining in many areas, this is simply the academic marketplace adjusting to trends.  But talent and dedication and resourcefulness are not equally distributed through the pool of prospects.  The diversion of ability to other fields may be disproportionately larger than the drop in numbers.

If a better developed and more comprehensive plan to bolster the teaching ranks is crafted, there are several policy pluses.  This debate over minimum starting salary could be the jumping off point for reversing trends that have devalued the teaching profession.  It could be the beginning of rebuilding schools from within, rather than dictating policies from the outside.  Properly focused, it could be a significant step toward addressing the diversity deficit in our teaching corps.

Last fall, Keystone Crossroads issued an eye-opening piece titled: “More than half of Pa. public schools do not have a teacher of color.”  The problem exists in both the pipeline of incoming teachers and in the retention of experienced instructors.  The question then is: How does the younger generation learn to respect and benefit from diversity in our society if direct evidence is absent from our education system?

The good news is fixing this cultural deficiency contains the seeds of solution for a host of school problems.  The bad news is that Pennsylvania lags the nation in addressing the situation.

We invest a considerable amount of money in technology and programs intended to improve student performance.  But if the instruction is not relatable to blocs of students, this investment will not approach the desired level of effectiveness.  The effort to revive the profession must involve increasing diversity.  The student population is incredibly diversified in urban schools and places that might surprise many people, such as the School District of Lancaster.

As in every legislative session, there will again be dozens of education fixes vying for attention and action.  Whichever ones Pennsylvania decides to implement, each must contend with a fundamental truth.  The success or failure of these approaches is ultimately not determined by superintendents, or principals, or guidance counselors, but by teachers.

The sooner a truce is declared in the war on teachers, the sooner that we set about to making teaching the attractive and respected profession it once was.  The sooner that respect and support rise, the better the chances of producing the higher levels of student performance we are spending a great deal of money to achieve.

Disclosure: My wife has taught and substituted in kindergarten and elementary grades in public and private schools for decades.  Her experienced insights into problems and remedies have always helpfully informed and  supplemented my observations about education funding and policies.

 David A. Atkinson is a Research Associate with the Susquehanna Valley Center’s Edward H. Arnold Institute for Policy Studies.

Nothing contain here should be considered as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any legislation before the General Assembly.

The views contained here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Susquehanna Valley Center.