The Wall Street Journal recently framed the record number of teachers leaving the profession as the result of a money problem. Unfortunately, the reasons teachers are quitting their jobs isn’t as easily explained as the mainstream media would like you to believe.
Teaching is considered a noble profession for a deep spiritual reason. So the decline of the teaching profession cannot be explained by just following the money, and the same can be said about the American K-12 system as whole.
While many frame teaching as a low-paying profession, this is generally not the case. The average teacher salary nationwide is $59,050, according to federal statistics, above the national median income. That doesn’t include health or pension benefits, which are on average 50 percent greater than those of private-sector workers.
Compensation like this might present some difficulty with purchasing power in America’s major cities like Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago, but I know many young teachers who live fairly well even in these cities. They might not be able to compete with college classmates who chose the banking industry, but these young people don’t choose to become teachers for the salary.
The sort of people interested in teaching choose the profession because they consider the work meaningful. It also provides the benefit of work-life balance, and if money is a concern there are plenty of opportunities for teachers to use weekends or summers to earn extra income.
Big Government Is a Problem
Teaching is a diverse profession greatly affected by the demographics of one’s students, which is why teaching is best approached as a local enterprise. The more centralized and bureaucratized teaching has gotten, the more the profession has become spiritually draining.
The money paid to teachers isn’t bad at all, but once one considers the burden of the job then the imbalance can be explained. Yet this is not simply a problem one can throw money at. Those with the temperament to become teachers are not wired the same way as investment bankers. Throwing money at the problem of stress might work in the jobs where people work with things, but it is not a fix for the jobs where people work with people.
Teachers can deal with the stress caused by their students because that is what they signed up for. What teachers cannot deal with is the stress caused by the other adults. Administrators in a school must act as representatives of the distant state and federal governments. The administrators are not to blame for this, as they are usually from the rank and file of the teaching profession who seek advancement.
The problem is their job is not to support teachers, but to maintain pseudo-order imposed by out-of-touch bureaucrats. In many places this system works fine, yet in many places it does not. This phenomena has also taken hold in charter schools—independent public schools that are usually privately managed—and the more schools within a charter network, the more bureaucratic oversight exists.
Charter Schools Can’t Fix the Problem Either
Charter schools are now subject to the same issues that ruined our public education in the first place. The bureaucrat class within charter schools conducts a misguided experiment: they think faux corporate hiring, assessment, and firing tactics will in some way benefit students, when it usually just causes crippling instability.
Assessing teacher quality is in no way settled science. Student performance on standardized tests is a good place to start, but that alone might tell us little about the quality of an individual teacher. Test scores are the result of a complex mix of IQ and many years of school experience, so to lay that at the feet of an individual teacher during one school year is just laughable.
Charter schools are the guiltiest of this performative fallacy, and it plays a large part into why many of them are just as bad as their public school counterparts. Few charter school networks actually boast impressive student test scores. To go all-in on test scores as an assessment of school and teacher quality is to accept a reality where names like Success and KIPP could become the education industries equivalent to Google and Amazon.
Money is not at the root of America’s education problem. The true root of the issue lies with the human participants. The Chicagoland suburb where I attended high school has some of the highest-paid teachers in the country. In the majority of the cases, these individuals earn just about every dollar they make, but the above-average per pupil expenditure still results in some of the worst-performing students in the state.
By no means does this sad reality, which is shared by many areas around the country, have a simple explanation. It is the result of complex human problems that at this point are so misunderstood that blame should be reserved entirely or at the very least shared by all until we start to scratch the surface of how it all could’ve gone so wrong.
What we do firmly know is that there is much room for improvement within the American education system. The greatest catch-22 is perhaps that our education system no longer prepares enough citizens to perform the deeply intellectual labor that would be required to improve such a system. Plenty of smart people following the money has led to little if any improvement in American education, and it’s time to start considering some alternatives.