"Teaching is a Noble Profession."
-The person who doesn't pay the teacher
It is true, teaching is a noble profession, but if they were truly compensated for the work they do and the expertise they need then teaching would be a lucrative career. However, the average salary for a teacher is in the 40-50k range.
I wanted to take a practical look at why teachers are paid so little for what they do.
To become a teacher, you need a few things. Requirements vary from district to district based on need. A district with high turnover and an extreme shortage of teachers is more likely to lower their standards than an area with low turnover and an excess of teachers. A few things you need that are pretty universal are: a degree, subject area certification, and a passing grade on the PPR.
What are those?
A degree is just that, some districts will take an associate's degree, some will take a minor, some require a Bachelor's. They want to make sure you've obtained some form of education beyond high school for fear of the blind leading the blind.
Subject area certification: Not only do they want to make sure you've obtained post grade school education, they want to make sure you know a little something about what you want to teach. That system is not perfect, though. The people who write the certification tests have to set the bar at a level that will allow anyone with a degree in that subject a fair chance to pass. In my personal opinion, someone who's science degree included creationism as a serious subject shouldn't be allowed within 50 nautical miles of classroom but c'est la vie.
The PPR: A nasty little test that is a pre-qualifier for taking the subject area certification. The PPR tests your ability to run a class (not TEACH class). Issues such as discipline methods, how to establish grading practices/procedures, test creation evaluation, test result evaluation, student safety, the list goes on. As much as I disliked this test, I believe teachers should be required to retake this test every 3-5 years to maintain their certification.
What are their functions? Together, these three requirements create the teacher, the degree for wisdom, the subject area for knowledge, and the PPR for administration.
The degree is costly, most teachers will get a Bachelor's degree in their subject so calculate the average cost of a degree at a 4-year university. The PPR and subject area tests add an extra couple hundred dollars on it as well, but one of the nastier lesser known requirements is the student teaching.
Student teaching: A wonderful concept, where the teacher to be is guided from observing a class to leading a class. This process puts a beginner under the care of a master, but this costs money, usually around a thousand dollars or so. Many teachers sign up to be a master teacher for these apprentices, but some of them do it so they don't have to do other "continuing education" requirements themselves.
So far, our young teacher has put a LOT of money into just being allowed to step into a classroom as it's leader. There's also a fair chance that he or she has some student loans to pay off as well. With such a commitment of resources, it seems wrong NOT to compensate them better.
The Meat of the Problem:
As a teacher, I would love it if I made $55k starting and could graduate up to $85-90k (pending performance). But the reality is that it's not likely to happen. Why? Money. In the public school system, most money is generated through school taxes placed on every piece of property in the district. The second highest source of money is from the state and the third is the federal level.
A school district is primarily in the business of educating, but supporting that work is costly. Here is a list of things the district has to pay for, it is no where near complete, but it will give you an idea (keep in mind I said district, not school): Building construction, security (including vehicles), administrative facilities operations, food services, maintenance department (under that dept: payroll, overhead, parts, vehicles, tools, insurance, pensions), inspections, substitutes, departments (math, language, fine arts, sports, etc), district library, IT (and all the costs of installing a network across the district), buses (including purchases, maintenance, bus barns, land for the bus barns, fuel, and driver pay), remodeling (to repair or upgrade facilities that don't meet code), textbooks, and school budgets.
Now what does a school have to pay for? They have to pay for their own staff, this includes teachers, administrators, counselors, assistant principals, specialty teachers (special ed), department heads, on site IT, custodians, the principal. Also included: department budgets, utilities, maintenance, library purchases, overhead, and food service.
There are a LOT of people working together to make a class happen and according to law they have to compensated for their work. Schools are held to a high standard not only in terms of education, but also the quality of environment. Everyone is a critic when a school is not up to par.
Now if there's so many people and so much money flying about, how is it that teachers still aren't paid very well? There's a few things that drain money, the first and foremost are students. Each student is given a set of text books every year, the total cost of those books per student can range from $500-$1250 depending on the number of books they have. For every certain number of students there needs to be a teacher and here is where the math gets tricky. Parents want as few students per teacher as possible because there is more face time with their kid, but to make that happen there have to be more teachers. More teachers requires two things: more classrooms and more employees. So, are parents willing to spend a few million dollars building new additions to all the schools across the campus and sustain an extra million or so on all the teachers needed to teach the kids?
More classrooms and more teachers cost the taxpayers more money. So schools have to make up for the increase in population by hiring only a few teachers and increasing the class sizes.
Over the last 20 years there's been a huge push to make the education system more efficient. But what saves money in one place may become more costly in other areas. The issue of the teacher:student ratio is one. While schools save money by putting more students in a class, they lower the efficiency and quality of the material taught. To clarify: in comparing a class of 10 to a class of 25, the class of 10 allows for more individualized work and lessons. This environment gives the teacher time to work with individuals often and identify problems or weaknesses to be addressed. In a class of 25, there isn't enough time to each a lesson and evaluate every person in the class effectively. It isn't a matter of effort, it's a matter of time. 45 min of class, 25 minutes of teaching the lesson and 20 minutes of checking for understanding, that's less than 1 minute PER PERSON. It is not enough time to evaluate an individual's progress, not enough time to ensure a confident understanding, it is quick glance over the paper, minor corrections and move on. In a class of 10, a teacher can talk to a student who is struggling due to problems outside the class and help them overcome, but in a class of 25 there isn't enough time when there's 5 other students who have questions pertaining to what's actually happening IN the class. In the class of 10 a student who learns differently can be accounted for, that student can be given the adjustments they need, in a class of 25 they fall behind because the teacher can't make 24 other students who already understand the material wait. There is further cost when the number of these students grow to the point where special education teachers have to be hired.
Some critics of public education say that all we do is throw money at it and never get anything out of it. In a way it is true, but at the same time it is also false. Should we look to trim out waste? Certainly! But even the superior school districts are still receiving barely adequate funding. If I were a superintendent, I'd take any money I could get because there's always something to do with it.
I wanted to touch on this subject because it's always being discussed. All of us who received public education can recall a time when they were using hilariously outdated technology in a classroom. The cost of upgrading technology is phenomenal and sometimes those who choose what technology to upgrade to aren't the best informed of what is best. Many school districts have been in operation since before 1970. This is significant because they were never designed to support networking. Installing a network into a building that was never designed to have one is a costly procedure if done right (disastrous if done cheaply), then factor in the cost of networking all of those old buildings together and the cost is staggering. Next, take Moore's law into account. in the 1980's phone wires were the fastest means of internet communications available to the public, in the late 1990's it became cat5 cable, now we have the cat6 and fiber optic. How many man hours does it cost to strip the old system out and install a new one every time the tech world has an upgrade? What about the cost of supplying students with laptops or tablets? There is a pie in the sky dream that one day schools will catch up with technology, but until the funding matches the cost, it will remain pie in the sky.
Why pay less?
Because we have to. If we don't, the schools won't be built, students/parents will be buying their own textbooks EVERY year, there will be no education support services like special education or "English as a Second Language", lights will burn out and remain out because there are no more bulbs, buildings will go in a state of disrepair, school buses will be double stacked with 4-5 kids per seat. We pay teachers less because we have no other choice.
Maybe in the future we'll have a true education president, a president who takes a page from John F. Kennedy and says "By the end of this decade, we will achieve 100% literacy, by the end of this decade we will be seen as a role model for public education." Public education isn't bad, nor is it dead, it just needs work.