The Culture of Scarcity

Changing the Working Conditions That Imperil Our Schools

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Providing a decent work setting could save money by greatly enhancing school efficiency and maximizing teacher recruitment and retention.

This morning I arrive a few minutes early for my weekly coaching session with one of the beginning teachers I mentor. We often meet in his school’s teachers’ room, and as I wait I eye the yard-sale sofas and mismatched chairs. Fluorescent lights cast flickering shadows over several battered tables. A dozen rolls of butcher paper are stacked along the wall, and a laminator fills the room with the odor of plastic. The round metal foot on one of the legs of my chair is missing, and the chair wobbles.

My beginning teacher enters the room, pushing a supply cart. He doesn’t have a permanent classroom, so he roams the school like a nomad, setting up in other teachers’ rooms during their prep periods. He sits on another wobbly chair and we begin discussing his plans for the week. He has 43 minutes until the bell rings.

As I travel from school to school mentoring teachers, I spend a lot of time in faculty lounges like this one. These drab rooms embody the culture of scarcity that pervades the teaching profession. Many of us don’t have decent facilities or basic supplies. We’re inundated with noncurricular tasks that don’t leave us enough time to do our best teaching or to collaborate with colleagues. And most of us don’t feel empowered to change the poor working conditions that erode the effectiveness of everyone in a school.

The good news for beginning teachers is the proliferation of mentoring programs that can make a huge difference in reversing the alarmingly high attrition rate among novices. But I fear that the efforts of even the best mentoring programs are undermined by the hardscrabble work environments that plague our vulnerable new teachers. My mentees routinely end up in their schools’ worst classrooms, without adequate supplies. Unfortunately, this is just the beginning of their troubles. They often have to prepare for too many subject areas and are given the most challenging students to teach. And, eager to make a good impression, they are easy marks for those offering the “opportunity” to take on time-consuming extracurricular activities shunned by veterans.

Recognizing how difficult working conditions weigh heavily against the success of our new teachers, mentors like myself have lobbied school administrators and union officials for change. When we ask education leaders to design an entry-level job description that intentionally lightens the load for novice teachers, they nod their heads in agreement but look at us in discomfort. We’re talking about the elephant in the room: the teaching profession’s paucity of resources that forces newcomers to endure a trial-by-fire initiation and hampers veterans throughout their careers. New teachers struggle during their early years to climb a few rungs up the seniority ladder in hopes of making their jobs easier. But they find themselves in a culture where scarcity is the norm. We get used to having little, we make do, we remain silent.

So what seems like a reasonable proposal—to create an easier transition into teaching—produces mostly inertia from the veteran teachers who themselves have suffered through the same debilitating system. While veterans are sympathetic to the plight of new teachers, they have paid their dues. Who can blame them for not wanting to give up some of the perks they’ve cobbled together? It’s hard to be generous when there isn’t much to give.

Inadequate working conditions cost schools dearly. Studies by the National Center for Education Statistics on teacher attrition and mobility show the toll taken on our nation’s schools. The NCES survey in 2000-01 found that 15 percent of all public school teachers that year either moved to other schools or left the profession. Among those who changed schools, a whopping 70 percent cited dissatisfaction with workplace conditions or lack of support from administrators.

Individual states are tackling the problem with their own data collection and initiatives. For example, both North and South Carolina have conducted comprehensive working-condition surveys of nearly 50,000 teachers and principals. The latest results, issued in March of this year, establish a link between working conditions and difficulties in recruiting and retaining teachers. It should be no surprise that the data also indicate good working conditions are an important predictor of student success. “Teacher working conditions are student learning conditions,” said Gov. Michael F. Easley of North Carolina.

What’s the point of having a "highly qualified" teacher in every classroom if teachers are hamstrung by underperforming working conditions?

Although I work on the opposite side of the continent, a survey of teachers in my home state of California would no doubt produce similar results. The culture of scarcity assumes that teachers will accept the unacceptable. For many years, I taught at a school where there wasn’t a place on campus to have a private phone conversation with a parent. Imagine any other professional—an accountant, a lawyer, a city planner—without access to a phone.

Students notice the condition of their schools, too. Before we utter our first words of welcome at the opening of the school year, the appearance of a school and the resources it offers convey a powerful message about how much a community values—or doesn’t value—education. Some students are taking matters into their own hands. Just this spring, San Francisco students were protesting their schools’ dilapidated bathrooms.

The federal No Child Left Behind law stipulates that every classroom must have a “highly qualified” teacher. But what’s the point if teachers are hamstrung by underperforming working conditions? Providing a decent work setting is a big budget item, but in the long run ending the culture of scarcity could save money by greatly enhancing school efficiency and maximizing teacher recruitment and retention.

Unfortunately, the politicians and bureaucrats who configure education budgets are often far removed from the day-to-day realities of schools, a fact that works to perpetuate this tired but intractable system. Decisionmakers in distant, well-equipped offices don’t face such challenges as preparing for the day’s lessons while worrying that there isn’t enough paper for the copy machine.

Not surprisingly, the worst working conditions are found in the poorest neighborhoods. A lawsuit settled last year in the California courts, Williams v. State of California, has put the spotlight on the appalling state of public schools in low-income communities, where overcrowded, rundown facilities and inadequate supplies are the norm. To staff such schools, districts use a high percentage of noncredentialed teachers and long-term substitutes. In America today, the students with the greatest need attend the worst schools.

After meeting with this new teacher, I drive to my next appointment fantasizing about a movement to change the culture of scarcity. I imagine a national initiative to create the conditions needed for student success. It would include these basics:

  • Dedicated time for teachers to plan and collaborate with colleagues;
  • Suitable resources and an inviting work environment;
  • Meaningful professional development; and
  • Frequent opportunities for teachers to take on decisionmaking responsibilities and school leadership roles.

I imagine how different it would be to meet with my new teacher in a fully functioning school. I would go directly to his permanent classroom, well stocked with teaching supplies. He’d have back-to-back prep periods, and we would spend part of the second one co-teaching a lesson with a colleague. After our meeting, we’d have a cup of coffee in a teachers’ room that inspires pride and confidence. None of the chairs would wobble. Then I’d leave for my next meeting, thinking of how the entire organization of this school proclaimed a simple message: Education matters.

Vol. 24, Issue 43, Pages 40-41

Published in Print: July 27, 2005, as The Culture of Scarcity
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