by Michael Haberman
Across the country, students and teachers are saying farewell for the summer. Yet, the reality is that in far too many cases, they are actually saying goodbye for good.
Approximately half of New York City’s teachers leave their classrooms after the first year, and that trend extends beyond the five boroughs. According to a Harvard Education Review survey, 30 percent of teachers left after the first three years in the classroom and 50 percent left after five years.
Granted, not everyone is well-suited for teaching, and some turnover is healthy. Yet no business would survive if 50 percent of its employees left after their first year, and no leader could ever be effective in that environment. That’s why, to retain the best and brightest, the most successful businesses pay competitive salaries to recruit talent; invest in and empower their employees to retain them; and then evaluate their employees to hold them accountable and reward them for their success.
So at a time when it is universally accepted that the most important factor in a child’s education is the quality of the teacher in their classroom, are our schools doing the same as successful businesses to recruit and retain the best and brightest to be teachers? The answer is a resounding ‘no.’
Nationwide, first-year teachers earn a median salary of $31,333 according to the United Federation of Teachers/TeacherPortal, 33 percent less than the median salary of someone with a bachelor’s degree. In New York City, the 2008 starting salary for teachers was $45,530, whereas entry-level PR professionals earned a median salary of $53,139 and financial analysts earned $57,442 in their first year. About one in five teachers work part-time jobs just to make ends meet.
It is true that teachers have never been at the top of the pay scale. But as Susan Moore Johnson at the Harvard Graduate School of Education states, it’s also true that until a few decades ago, women and men of color were often closed out of other careers. As a result, we had created a “hidden subsidy” for public education: “well-educated individuals who had few professional options and, therefore, were committed to teaching at pay levels far below those of professions in other fields.” Not anymore. Professions that once shunned talented women and people of color now have special initiatives designed to recruit them.
At the same time, students coming out of college with expertise in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) — the same expertise we so desperately need in our schools — are being highly recruited by the Facebooks, Instagrams, and Googles of the world with six-figure pay packages to start and the opportunity to make multiples more while working in an office filled with free food and basketball courts. Compare that to a New York City teacher who, after 30 years, will max out at roughly $100,000 and who, according to conventional wisdom, will be more likely to have a urinary tract infection than the average employee in other professions because they can’t leave the classroom to go to the bathroom.
While we can’t try to compete dollar for dollar or attract to teaching people whose primary goal is to make money, we can at least make sure that we are paying our teachers a competitive salary that doesn’t require working a second job.
Smart businesses invest in their employees so that they stay at the top of their game. Yet as 45 states are about to launch the Common Core Standards, 51 percent of teachers said they were only somewhat prepared and 27 percent said they were highly unprepared to meet these new standards. In New York City, it was recently reported that $100 million has been spent on professional development yet there is no indication of whether it has had any impact on our teachers.
In addition, Johnson found that too often new teachers are hired just before, or even after school started, leaving no time to prepare for their new responsibilities. And many times they are expected to teach outside their field or to take on the most challenging students, courses, or schedules.
Teaching is a profession — an ever-changing one. And we have to invest in teachers as professionals so they continue to grow as professionals and build on their knowledge, skills and expertise to most effectively educate our children.
While businesses compensate and invest in their employees, they also hold them accountable. Those who aren’t performing don’t last in their jobs, and those that excel are compensated for their achievements. Teachers, on the other hand, are not rewarded for success; they’re rewarded for longevity. As stated by Educators 4 Excellence, teachers’ careers advance through an outdated system that rewards time spent in classrooms and graduate school classes that “have shown no correlation with teacher effectiveness.” Rather than be rewarded for their professional success, teachers wait for incremental raises at predetermined intervals.
Although we are working on it, we are still yet to develop a comprehensive method for evaluating teachers that takes into account the numerous indicators of whether they are performing well — and where they need help. And the reality is that, for too many, teaching is a life-time job regardless of whether they are helping, or hurting, our students.
We often hear that teaching is just different — that it is not the same as business. No one knows that better than PENCIL, where we have developed a model to engage business leaders in public education in a way that supports principals and teachers, rather than “take over” public education. Yet the evidence shows that some business principles are 100 percent transferable. The Washington Post notes that the top-performing countries on standardized tests in math, science and reading all “selectively recruit for teacher training programs. The pay is much higher than in the United States. Professional work environments are excellent. And the cultural respect for teachers is very high. In Finland, the country with what is now considered one of the finest education systems in the world, teaching is the most admired job among top college students.”
Recently, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and representatives from other organizations committed to finding and keeping better teachers in their “shared vision for the future of the teaching profession,” which included recommendations to provide teachers with continuous growth and professional development, a professional career continuum with competitive compensation, and other suggestions that will produce better teachers and express America’s respect, support, and pride for our educators.
We say that there is nothing more important than our children’s education. Yet we aren’t making the investments we need to recruit the best and brightest to become teachers. It doesn’t take a great teacher to explain why that math doesn’t add up.