Chester E. Finn, Jr. | September 20, 2008

In Praise of (and Sympathy for) Teachers

Chester E. Finn, Jr.

The new school year is upon us, and it's time for a word in appreciation of teachers.

Observing a focus group recently that pulled together a dozen AP teachers from a strong suburban school system, I was struck anew by their intelligence, their selflessness, their energy, their patience, the depth of their commitment to their work, and their genuine concern for the well-being and advancement of their youthful charges. Bravo for them and the many thousands of others like them without whom our schools could not function and would not produce even today's mixed results.

They came across as fairly satisfied, too. I didn't detect much self-pitying. Indeed, individual teachers, speaking for themselves, seldom spend a lot of time bemoaning their fate. They go about their work, reposing in tolerable comfort in a bed they made for themselves and taking well-deserved pride in their successes. Indeed, surveys by the National Opinion Research center indicate that teachers are relatively happy with their work, up there with painters and authors-and not far below clergy and firefighters.

Their "leaders," however, and innumerable policy wonks, think tankers, interest groups, and assorted experts and politicians who claim to be looking after teachers' interests-these folks spend a lot of time lamenting the raw deal they want you to think American society is giving its schoolteachers. Their complaints generally center on tight-fisted legislators, mindless administrators, mean-spirited federal programs, incompetent, uncooperative parents, and unmotivated pupils.

Does this sound familiar? These critics suggest that we're supposed to feel teachers' pain, dig deeper into our pocketbooks to compensate them, and chuck out the evil bureaucrats, guileful politicians, and misbegotten programs that hassle and oppress them.

Which got me thinking. Do teachers truly deserve sympathy as well as gratitude? And I concluded that yes they do-great teachers and those who go above and beyond deserve more than others-but not primarily for the plagues that union leaders and sundry propeller heads, vote-seekers, and pundits like to recite. Sure, there's a basis for some of those. But what teachers genuinely deserve sympathy for are six afflictions, all of which could have been averted (and/or could still be corrected) via smart policy shifts:

  1. An absurd and antiquated compensation system that pays bad teachers as much as good ones and phys. ed. teachers as much as physics teachers. (A recent survey reminds us that math and science teachers are the most apt to leave due to meager pay-compared to what they can earn elsewhere.) That system is controlled by large bureaucracies instead of individual schools; is skewed to favor time-servers at the expense of newcomers; and is coupled to archaic, non-portable pension plans.
  2. A personnel system designed for the 1930s that ignores the tenets of modern management and the need to empower individuals-both principals and teachers-to reach agreement on their job assignments, placements, retention and such. Instead it entrusts such matters to rulebooks, rigid seniority systems, and (again) large bureaucracies. The same HR system is blind to modern career trajectories and weeps whenever anyone exits the classroom, even though the typical pattern of today's young college graduates is to try one thing for a few years, then another and then another.
  3. A dysfunctional training-and-licensure regimen that, on the one hand, makes it slow, expensive, and arduous for eager would-be teachers to enter the public school classroom and, on the other hand, burdens them with useless courses while failing to impart core knowledge of their subjects and the most effective methods of conveying those subjects to children. Superimposed on this is so-called "professional development" that much of the time isn't worth the paper it's printed on, much less the money that's spent on it.
  4. Schools that, despite much blather about "professional" educators, give teachers surprisingly little control over fundamental decisions about their work. Yes, it's still partly true that once the classroom door is closed, the teacher is queen of her domain. Yet that teacher often has little or no say about who is in her class; what textbooks will be used; the curricular scope and sequence; the quantity of homework (if any); the grading scale; how to communicate with parents; and much more. At the same time, that "professional" may not even have her own classroom and desk and almost surely lacks her own work phone number and e-mail address. (Okay, she has summers off, but not working isn't a mark of professionalism either.)
  5. A host of forces (including, let's face it, teachers' own desire for smaller classes) have conspired to swell America's teaching workforce to three times its 1955 size even as student enrollments have risen by just 50 percent. Hence even though we're spending tons more money per pupil, teachers' pay has barely kept pace with inflation. We've rashly opted for more teachers rather than better-or better-compensated-teachers. Then we wonder why we're not getting platoons of the best and brightest to work in our public-school classrooms. Teachers-great ones, especially-should earn more, but that's destined not to happen, at least not to any appreciable degree, so long as most "new money" goes into hiring more people.
  6. Finally, we've devised such narrow "accountability" systems for schools, and built those atop such shoddy standards and simpleminded tests, that teachers may legitimately be forgiven for not wanting to "teach to" those tests and for feeling shackled and blocked from teaching things they love and yearn for their pupils to love, too. Mindless accountability arrangements foster mindless instruction and, in time, mindless, robotic instructors.

Yes, sympathize with teachers even as you applaud them. But please identify the real problems rather than the fashionable ones.

Chester E. Finn, Jr. (Ph.D. in education policy, Harvard University) is a senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and senior editor of Education Next. He was Professor of Education and Public Policy at Vanderbilt University from 1981 until 2002.

Chester E. Finn, Jr.

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