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School Desk Blog: Faith in Public Education and the Teaching Profession

Faith in Public Education and the Teaching Profession

Today's public school teachers are on the frontlines of our nation’s collective effort to compete in a global economy and develop the scientists, engineers, teachers and other leaders of tomorrow. 

Our public education system is about much more than helping students achieve personal goals; it is about preparing them to work together to advance our society. Unfortunately, national education debates focus on individual rights and choices, distracting many politicians from a key stakeholder: our nation as a whole.

In today’s climate, contempt for public schools is commonplace. Many Americans report a loss faith of in the system, longing for a return to a perceived former glory. However, even in the 1960s, when international science and math tests were first administered, the U.S. wasn’t at the top of the rankings.

In a recent column titled, “U.S. Public Schools Are Not Failing. They’re Among the Best in The World,” author Steven Singer says, “American elementary and middle school students have improved on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study every four years since the tests began in 1995.” Even on the PISA test administered to 15-year-olds in about 60 countries, U.S. children are far from the bottom of the scale. We’re somewhere in the middle, where we’ve always been.

One of the most impressive things about American rankings is the fact that we include all students; many other nations do not educate poor children or those with special needs.

In recent decades, the student body of California public schools has expanded to include students with ever-greater challenges. A majority of students come from low-income households and students who are still learning to speak English. And it includes many students with disabilities who would have been excluded from public school before passage of the 1975 law now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which guaranteed all children a “free appropriate public education.”

Even so, some have lost faith in public education and they blame education’s decline on teachers unions. “If it weren’t for those damned unions protecting bad teachers,” or so the logic goes, “we could drain the dregs and hire good ones.”

But unions are not the bogeyman here. According to “The Myth of Unions’ Overprotection of Bad Teachers,” a well-designed study by University of Utah economist Eunice S. Han, school districts with strong unions actually do a better job of weeding out bad teachers and retaining good ones than do those with weak unions. This makes sense. When districts pay higher wages, they have more incentive to employ good teachers (and dispense with bad ones).

In defending our public schools, I do not mean to say they cannot be improved. But if we are serious about advancing them, we need to stop scapegoating unions and take steps to increase and improve the teaching pool. Teacher shortages are putting California in dire straits. In the coming years, we will need an additional 60,000 – 135,000 teachers, just to meet the demand created by those retiring.  

Many top college graduates hesitate to join a profession with low wages. For many years, talented women had few career alternatives to nursing and teaching; this kept teacher quality artificially high. Now that women have more options, if we want to attract strong teachers, we need to pay competitive salaries. Massachusetts and Connecticut have led the way, attracting capable people to the field with higher salaries.

In addition to raising teacher pay, we should offer forgivable tuition loans, service fellowships, and housing and childcare subsidies for teachers, many of whom can’t afford to live in our community.

In 2004, political theorist Benjamin Barber warned that “America as a commercial society of individual consumers may survive the destruction of public schooling. America as a democratic republic cannot.” In this era of growing fragmentation, we urgently need a renewed commitment to the idea that public education is a worthy investment, one that pays dividends not only to individuals, but to our society as a whole.

I agree with American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten who said, “Strong public schools are the cornerstone of a strong economy, a strong democracy and a strong middle class.”