Welcome to Laurie Goodman's blog. I use this space to share news and opinions about education and schools in Ridgewood, the state of New Jersey and the nation, in addition to other issues I'm personally interested in. I invite you to share your thoughts, feelings, questions or opinions, too, by posting comments on any blog entry. Please observe basic courtesy -- keep your comments focused on issues, no personal attacks or bullying, please. Contact me directly at: lauriegood@mac.com

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The high cost of low salaries.

Now that my daughter (RHS Class of 07) has begun working on her Master’s and started student teaching at an elementary school in New Hampshire, I’m getting a fascinating look at the process of becoming a teacher. The view from the very first days of one’s career is so interesting – especially when that career is constantly in the news and the topic of blog posts, speeches, political posturing, national debate and local ridicule. More than a few young or aspiring teachers are asking themselves, “What am I doing? Is this really the smartest thing for me to do with my life?” For most young adults who enter the teaching profession right out of college, teaching is a calling. They’ve always wanted to be a teacher, or they’ve always know they wanted to work with children. Teaching is certainly not the career one lands on when scanning the list of Top 10 Starting Salaries or Top 10 Growth Careers, where it seems the primary focus is on how fast can you get out and how much money can you leave with. Teaching is no way to get rich – there are much higher starting salaries and much more lucrative fields. This fact, I believe, is directly related to the current worries about the quality of our schools.

I read a great piece in the NY Times about teacher compensation and the high cost of turnover -- as 46% of teachers quit before their fifth year. (The High Cost of Low Salaries, 4/30/11) According to the piece:
WHEN we don’t get the results we want in our military endeavors, we don’t blame the soldiers. We don’t say, “It’s these lazy soldiers and their bloated benefits plans! That’s why we haven’t done better in Afghanistan!” No, if the results aren’t there, we blame the planners. We blame the generals, the secretary of defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff. No one contemplates blaming the men and women fighting every day in the trenches for little pay and scant recognition.
And yet in education we do just that. When we don’t like the way our students score on international standardized tests, we blame the teachers. When we don’t like the way particular schools perform, we blame the teachers and restrict their resources.
Compare this with our approach to our military: when results on the ground are not what we hoped, we think of ways to better support soldiers. We try to give them better tools, better weapons, better protection, better training. And when recruiting is down, we offer incentives.
We have a rare chance now, with many teachers near retirement, to prove we’re serious about education. The first step is to make the teaching profession more attractive to college graduates.
I find it difficult to argue with this premise. What do you say?

The article discusses a McKinsey study that looked at countries with successful education systems – you know, the countries frequently cited as shining examples of school systems that are “better” than ours, namely Singapore, Finland and South Korea. The study found:
Turns out these countries have an entirely different approach to the profession. First, the governments in these countries recruit top graduates to the profession. (We don’t.) In Finland and Singapore they pay for training. (We don’t.) In terms of purchasing power, South Korea pays teachers on average 250 percent of what we do.
The authors also remark that “turnover in these countries is startlingly low: In South Korea, it’s 1 percent per year. In Finland, it’s 2 percent. In Singapore, 3 percent.”

Is this a coincidence? I don’t think so. Great teachers are going to be the key to improving our education system, and great teachers – who possess the best and brightest minds and who can afford to teach and contribute for the long haul – will cost money.

The NY Times column concludes:
For those who say, “How do we pay for this?” — well, how are we paying for three concurrent wars? How did we pay for the interstate highway system? Or the bailout of the savings and loans in 1989 and that of the investment banks in 2008? How did we pay for the equally ambitious project of sending Americans to the moon? We had the vision and we had the will and we found a way.
To which I add, it’s time to rustle up our collective will, leave the politics out, and make it happen. This is not to say it must happen by being fully funded by local property taxes. It's a federal issue. Right? Isn't our nation's overall approach to education a national issue? Hello? Is this thing on?

And to the young teachers just starting their careers now, perhaps in your first classrooms this week: Hang in there. Don’t be discouraged. Think for yourself and not your union’s political agenda. Be part of the conversation. And thank you.


Anonymous said...

Ah, there's the rub... unions. As in... teachers' union. Professionals don't belong to unions or at least shouldn't if they want to be taken seriously as professionals.

There is no free market for teachers. Salaries are based on seniority not competence or supply. Why does a gym teacher make more than a science teacher? We don't pay nurses the same as we pay doctors do we.

And for all the nurses who will complain about that comparison, you didn't go to med school or endure the years of extensive study and training that a doctor has to before getting your job.

Anonymous said...

to 10:46 pm -
I know many nurses, have heard many "work" conversations, but I have never heard even nurse one say that nurses should get paid as much as doctors. Have you?

In the State of NJ, when a teacher is hired they must join the union, no choice. It isn't a right-to-work state, so let's not say the teachers are not professional because they are in a union.

I am NOT applauding the overly powerful teacher unions.

Anonymous said...

Laurie, I think a key component of what is wrong with teaching is the nature of the salary schedule. I can see that each year up to about 10 years a teacher should have a lot more practical experience than a starting teacher and the upward slide in salaries in justified.

But let's talk about human nature. Are teachers really inherently better in their 15th year than their 10th year? I don't think so.

I am not trying to reduce overall compensation, I think that the dollar growth at the end should be reduced and distributed towards the middle. This would help with retention of teachers with experience, but not yet likely candidates for burnout.

I also think that raises for a classroom teacher who gets a phd are not cost-effective. Is a teacher in a high school classroom really more effective because they have a PHD? I don't think so.

If anything, PHD's should be the province of administrators (like principals), not workers (teachers).

Anonymous said...

The McKinsey study pointed to those other countries doing three things - government recruitment of top candidates, paying for training, and higher pay.
I don't think that the first two methods would be suitable for this country. If pay were higher, we would recruit the best talent. One national problem is that we tend to underpay starting teachers in order to overpay the most senior teachers. I think that Ridgewood is an exception in that starting teachers do okay, but this is a national problem.
A slightly flatter, more equitable pay scale would be encouraging to newer teachers, and would cause less hanging on for a few too many years towards the end of the teaching career.

Laurie said...

I'm curious, @1:53 why you think the govt recruiting better candidates and paying for training are not suitable for this country? I do agree with you that higher pay would recruit better teachers. But I suspect that in order for this to happen, federal funds would be needed. It would take full-scale agreement as a country that we consider education to be such a priority.

Of course, there will be those who point to Abbott districts where the total spending is ridiculously high. But all that money is NOT going to teacher salaries. God knows where it is going.

I just think it is time to stop thinking about teachers as mere facilitators, worker bees who follow curriculum plans and deliver test scores or else. We need them to be part of this conversation and we need smart, thoughtful, intellectual dialogue. Until salaries are higher overall (I'm taking about nationwide, not just Ridgewood), and until the potential and framework for growing one's salary exists, we will struggle to get the best and brightest into teaching.

Anonymous said...

My reasoning is:
(1) I think that better nationwide (not Ridgewood) starting salaries will take care of recruitment of top individuals. We saw much of the cream of the crop of graduates move from engineeering to Wall Street in the 1980's when salaries shifted in favor of Bond Traders. People tend to follow money. I am not suggesting that we pay Wall Street level salaries or bonuses. I want to increase starting salaries so that the few who are both caring and qualified aren't turned off to teaching or feel they have to leave it for financial reasons in their early years.
(2) Local government already recruits teachers in that they advertise, hire, evaluate, and decide whether to grant tenure to a teacher. I don't want the federal government to predetermine who is a good candidate and training those people at government expense. That is what college and college loans are for, and salary should be high enough to make it a reasonable endeavor for those that have a calling to teach.
The New York Times article seems to champion government recruitment and government paid training but doesn't provide details of how it works in Finland and Korea. The devil is in the details.
(3) The NY Times article makes a great case "Imagine a novice teacher, thrown into an urban school, told to teach five classes a day, with up to 40 students each. At the year’s end, if test scores haven’t risen enough, he or she is called a bad teacher."
A. The current training (college) doesn't teach enough about real day to day classroom management - particularly for urban environments. It is easier for the colleges to teach another psychology class. The training needs to be fixed.
B. A class size of 40 middle school students is crazy. Needs to be fixed.
C. The evaluation of a teacher based upon their students passing a test, without regard to where those students started the year in a bad idea. Teachers need to be judged on added-value, in addition to their other qualities.
D. There should be more in-the field experience before graduationg college - so that people know whether they really want to be in the class or not.

To summarize - early year teacher salaries, quality of training, teacher evaluations, school conditions - known problems with clear but system-resistant solutions.

Lets fix these before we go down some undefined government recruitment and training bureaucracy.

P.S. We should be suspicious that Singapore, Finland, and South Korea government programs are going to be applicable to our multi-cultural and diverse society without very specific details.