Commentary

Getting Better Teachers Into the Classroom:It's More Than a Matter of More Money

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

How to get better teachers? Pay more." That was the heading of one of Albert Shanker's recent "Where We Stand" columns. The question is persistent, and a great many people make that answer. Many are also persuaded that paying teachers more will take care of teacher shortages. Last spring, Jackson (Miss.) Superintendent of Schools Robert Fortenberry called education a "professional nesting ground for mediocrity," and advised the National Commission on Excellence in Education that teachers must be better paid to attract "the best minds" (Education Week, May 19, 1982). And Elaine Banks, past president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, with reference to the shortage of mathematics and science teachers, told a National Academy of Science audience, "If educators were adequately paid, we wouldn't have a shortage" (Communicator, May 30, 1982).

Will better salaries assure the schools better teachers, and will more competitive salaries eliminate shortages?

The sensible answer is, significantly better salaries will help, if the schools can afford them; but better salaries alone will not assure the schools permanent, qualitative improvement.

Let's be realistic about teachers and teaching. There are as many as three million schoolteachers in the United States. Among them there are probably as many master teachers as there are out-and-out clods, and the majority may accurately be characterized as more or less competent. Their average salary is about $18,000. That's not enough.

Teaching is hard work--lots harder than it seems to those who imagine teaching to be a 9-to-3 job with long, lazy summer vacations. Six hours a day in classrooms with young children or adolescents drain energy and emotion as few occupations do, and teachers spend many of their out-of-class hours on preparation and paperwork, not to say at meetings and in conference. More than a few spend much of those long summer vacations studying or working on the courses they teach. And more would, if they didn't have to take whatever jobs they can find to make ends meet.

Teachers on strike have permitted the inference that all teachers are little or no more than money-grubbing journeymen. It's true that teachers sometimes have to grub for money; but no one entered teaching to strike it rich. Most became teachers for the commendable reason that they wanted to teach school.

Whereas genteel poverty was enough for past generations of schoolteachers to make ends meet, it is not enough for this generation. Confronted by the same prices for food, clothing, housing, transportation, and recreation that others must pay, intending to send their own children to college, taxed like everyone else--on $18,000, not many can afford the kind of dedication society expects of them. That much is clear.

Clear, too, is the real dilemma of education-policy and decision makers. Salaries constitute the largest part of every school's operating budget, and there are not many boards or administrators who begrudge teachers a decent living--who "exalt education and demean the teacher,'' as Ernest L. Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, has put the matter. In 1982, however, the need of teachers for adequate pay is totally at odds with school systems' need to retrench.

Last April, a news release of the Education Commission of the States reported that "five comprehensive surveys reflecting the view[s] of over 1,000 state political and education leaders" showed that fiscal problems constitute "the leading concern among the states today." Teachers' salaries were among the "issues of lesser concern." Ironically, a committee of the Council of Chief State School Officers recommended that "states raise the standards for entry into teacher-training programs in an effort to reduce the supply of new teachers, drive up salaries, and thus attract higher-caliber teachers into the profession" (Education Week, May 12, 1982).

These critical issues are not best resolved through adversarial relations. Fighting for rights and defending turf may gain time for the adversaries, but the condition of education affords little time for gamesmanship.

Here are four guidelines for school officials. None offers an easy or a quick fix; but all are important for administrators to follow unless they are content to sit on the horns of their dilemma. And teachers who value their vocations as much as their jobs will respect them--unless they are content to nest in mediocrity.

Accept the fact that no miracle is going to meet the needs of teachers for adequate remuneration or remove the constraints on school boards and administrators. If a miracle did happen and teachers were paid tomorrow on a par with electronics engineers, the effect would be only a kind of instant gratification. Better pay is one condition of better teaching in the schools. Rigorous, subject-centered preparation is another, and no miracle is going to bring that about either.

Give teachers' salaries top priority in the operating budget of every school, making truly adequate salaries the objective, and giving that objective precedence over all other operating expenses until it is achieved.

Benefits are important, too, especially insurance against major medical expenses and realistic provision for retirement; but benefits will not take the place of the money teachers need in their pockets. Given the prospect of a decent living, few good teachers would expect, much less hold out for, salaries that match those of business executives or nonacademic professionals. Because they know that the rewards of teaching can be as real as they are proverbial, most are prepared to settle for less.

Stop the clockwork administration of salaries, and relate increases to performance. To administer teachers' salaries on a merit basis is a demanding responsibility no one can meet infallibly. But to reward mediocrity on the same basis as outstanding or dependably good performance is utter fallibility, because it eliminates from teaching a powerful incentive to excel that is common to most other occupations.

Before they make new appointments, administrators should hold out as long as possible--longer than most of them think they can--for applicants who are not only certified to teach, but also thoroughly grounded by preparation or experience to teach the subjects they propose to teach. To be confident of such grounding, administrators must look beyond certification documents, diplomas and degrees, and perfunctory letters of recommendation.

Retrenchment and reform can work together for good, but only if those who make policies and decisions are realistic.

Vol. 02, Issue 14, Page 18

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Login | Register
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories

Viewed

Emailed

Recommended

Commented