In 1903, George Bernard Shaw came out with a single phrase that has plagued teachers to this day, “Those who can, do; those who can’t teach”.
Woody Allen, took it once step further in his screenplay Annie Hall when he wrote,
“Those who can’t, teach. And those who can’t teach, teach gym.”
― Woody Allen, Annie Hall: Screenplay
He was, of course, making a joke. But he is touching on a sentiment that is widely shared amongst many people in the United States today. Namely, if you can’t cut it in any other profession, you should try your hand at teaching.
This sentiment has plagued teachers for over a century.
It has festered and stewed. It has become a problem that is a double-edged sword. Because while we value education in this country, we have devalued the very people and institutions that are making it possible.
In fact, if you asked the average American what they think of teachers, they will likely tell you that they are undervalued and underpaid. We all know this to be true. And yet, we have not done much to change things.
A Question of Value
Pay is one of the best indicators of value. Or at least it should be. Sadly, when it comes to teachers in the United States, this is clearly not the case.
Today, the average starting teacher in America makes below $40,000 a year in 63% of school districts and less than $30,000 in several hundred more. In fact, relative to their education, teachers are paid roughly 21% less than other American professionals, despite working on average 12 to 16 hours a day.
What’s more, teacher salaries have actually gone down year on year. According to the National Education Association, teacher wages adjusted for inflation have decreased 4.5% over the past decade.
American teachers are also paid significantly less than their counterparts in other countries. The United States currently ranks 27th out of 32 developed countries according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development when it comes to teacher pay. In Luxemburg, by contrast, primary school teachers are typically paid $124,000 per year. American teachers would all require a whopping 80% pay raise to make the equivalent of their Luxemburg counterparts.
But value is not just about pay. It is also about meaning, influence and sway. Teachers, it turns out, do score highly when it comes to these attributes. Up to a point.
A 2018 survey by the Varkey Foundation, 78% of respondents felt that teachers were influential and inspiring.
But when asked to rank what other professions are on par with teachers, most respondents said librarians. This is perhaps not surprising, given librarians only make about $35,000 a year. But it is a far cry from how the public in Russia, Malaysia and China view their teachers. In these countries, teachers are seen to be on the same level as doctors.
What’s more, while the public may feel positively towards teachers; teachers aren’t feeling the love. In Varkay’s survey, American teachers actually ranked their status lower than the general public did.
But given how little we pay teachers; this is not surprising.
Ultimately what we have really been telling our teachers is, “Yes, we value the work, but sadly we don’t want to pay that much for it.”
A Problem of Our Own Making
Perhaps this is why, for the first time in over 50 years, more than 50% of Americans said they did not want their kids to become teachers.
New graduates usually follow the money. And because there is no money in teaching, this country is now faced with a shortage of teachers, particularly in states like California, Hawaii, Nevada, Washington, Washington D.C., Indiana and Arizona.
By 2027, over 3 million new students in the US are expected to be added to the roster, but teacher enrollments in preparatory programs are down by 35% year on year.
As a result, schools have had to hire warm bodies. Warm bodies are effectively teachers who have a bachelor’s degree and relevant experience. Most of these teachers must also take an alternative teaching credential for 5–6 weeks, but this is a far cry for the 4–6 years of study in pedagogy, and the foundations of education that teaching graduates usually take.
Moreover, while we like to quote Shaw when it comes to teachers, we need to keep in mind that just because, “you can do, doesn’t mean you can teach”.
Government funding is also down, and most states and local governments are funding schools at pre-2008 levels. As a result, class sizes are larger, resources are strapped and there are fewer truly qualified teachers in the mix.
But that’s not all.
Pay for Performance
We are paying teachers based on our children’s test scores. With Common Core and No Child Left Behind initiatives, teachers have been asked to focus on standardized testing. But test scores have not really gone up over the years. In fact, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAEP, test scores have flatlined over the past 10 years.
Contrast this with Finland, which has one of the highest-ranking education systems in the world. In Finland, there is more of an emphasis on critical thinking versus test taking. There, students only take one standardized test called the National Matriculation Exam at the end of high school and this is graded by professors not computers.
Students in Finland are also taught to tackle controversial material head on.
“In Finland, students are regularly asked to show their ability to cope with issues related to evolution, losing a job, dieting, political issues, violence, war, ethics in sports, junk food, sex, drugs, and popular music. Such issues span across subject areas and often require multi-disciplinary knowledge and skills.”
Pasi Sahlberg a professor and former director general at the Finland Ministry of Education
In fact, many countries that receive high marks for their education systems do not test. Canada, France, Japan and Sweden all do not use tests to hold their teachers and educators accountable.
Not surprisingly, the practice in the US of paying teachers based on short-term test results, has not panned out well. Test scores have not improved. Teachers have narrowed the focus of what they teach to map strictly to what is tested. Teachers have also become less incented to work with disadvantaged children because they traditionally don’t test as well.
Paying for test results has neither driven the right behaviors nor made teachers feel more valued. In fact, just the opposite given this country’s mediocre test results.
We have also failed to weed out the teachers we don’t value. Because today, the dance of the lemons is still alive and kicking.
The Dance of the Lemons
The dance of the lemons is used to describe the practice of sending failing or problem teachers to different school districts instead of getting rid of them. This is because firing these teachers is not only difficult, it is extremely costly.
If a teacher is being dismissed or is in prison, a school district is still obligated to pay the teacher’s salary and benefits. So, oftentimes districts do the mental calculation that a troubled teacher is better than no teacher at all.
But this only serves to further undermine our view of teachers and the value they bring in educating our children.
At the End of the Day
It’s time for a change. We need to flip the switch on how we perceive and reward our teachers.
Teachers make a difference. Taylor Mali says this best. They provide an invaluable service to our children and our society.
Moving forward we need to pay teachers fairly. We should take a page from Luxemburg on this. We need to properly fund education. In Finland, they dedicate 6.84% of GDP to education. In the US, this number is 5.62%. We need to have the ability to discard the lemons and poor performers. And pay for performance can not solely be limited to test scores. This clearly doesn’t work.
It’s time to adopt a new approach and a new mantra.
It’s time we are all able to say, “If you can, then teach”.
World Economic Forum, Finland has one of the best education systems. Here’s how it compares to the US
OECD Education GPS
Nationmaster, Education stats for Finland and the US
Business Insider, 10 alarming facts about teacher pay in the United States, 2019
Kappon Online, Public opinion towards teachers
Infobloom, What is the dance of the lemons
School Growth, The dance of the lemons isn’t limited to public schools
Ipsos Poll, View on American teachers
Gallup Poll, On Education
Bored Teachers, American teachers vs. the world
Washington Post, 2018 poll of where in the world teachers are most respected
aei org, Rethinking America’s education
Stanford Edu News, Finnish schools and reform
Teachaway, Teacher shortages in the US
Public School Review, 15 of the biggest failures of the US education system
The State Times, Do Americans value education
NPR, Common Core: Higher expectations, flat results
© Courtney Burry 2021