May 9, 2019
Every year at this time, our nation celebrates Teacher Appreciation Week. But this year, the backdrop of the 2020 elections introduces a new dimension, as presidential candidates seek to stand out from the field in hopes of gaining an endorsement from one or both of the national unions.
While most of the vast field of Democratic candidates for president are still fleshing out their policy positions on a variety of issues, several top contenders have come out in support of increasing teacher pay. Perhaps this is a predictable response to media coverage of the multitude of teacher strikes, walk-outs, and rallies over the past year, the most recent happening just this past week in North Carolina and South Carolina. The headlines accompanying these events make it easy to be lulled into thinking that we could solve the underlying teacher unrest solely by paying teachers more.
Compensation is definitely a key piece of teacher dissatisfaction: a recent analysis finds that nationally teachers now earn 11 percent less, on average, than other college-educated workers, despite earning only two percent less 25 years ago. But teachers’ discontent is rooted in a host of issues. So, as 2020 races begin to gear up at the national, state, and local levels, what else should candidates focus on?
First, candidates should work to understand teachers’ day-to-day jobs and the parameters that they are working in. Teachers often bemoan the average citizen’s lack of understanding about the myriad responsibilities on their plates, which in addition to preparing and delivering engaging, impactful lessons can include driving school buses, staffing lunch rooms, providing social-emotional support to students, and performing outreach to parents. These additional responsibilities exist because of a dearth of additional school personnel, such as counselors and teachers’ aides, which is related to a lack of school funding outside of the scope of teacher pay.
They should also work to understand the shortcomings of most teachers’ initial preparation, ongoing professional development, and career advancement opportunities. For example, research across professions indicates that people are more likely to be happy with their job and less likely to quit when they believe that their employer is investing in their growth. And the evidence bears out that increasing compensation is more effective when coupled with opportunities to develop and advance professionally.
But right now, most teachers are provided with little time or useful support to get better at their craft, or rewards for doing so. The most common options teachers have to advance involve leaving the teaching profession, often by becoming a school or district administrator, although sometimes by leaving education altogether. When “teacher leader” roles are available, they often come with little to no additional compensation or reduction in current responsibilities, diminishing their status and appeal.
To date, only a handful of presidential candidates have outlined more detailed views on education issues. But a few appear to be focusing on improving the status and experience of teaching. For example, while Senator Kamala Harris’ recent proposal has captured headlines for its focus on raising teacher pay, many outlets have glossed over the fact that she also outlines plans to promote pathways into teaching that provide extensive in-school training and support, as well as clear pathways for advancing once in the profession. And Senator Bernie Sanders has voiced support for investing in high-quality, ongoing professional development for teachers, in addition to increased compensation.
Today, New America’s Education Policy Program released its recommendations for presidential candidates, which includes strategies for strengthening the teacher pipeline. Specifically, we recommend that candidates support:
- Effective preparation, which provides teacher candidates with the knowledge, skills, and hands-on experiences necessary for success in the classroom, and which helps prevent burnout. This includes proposing incentives to create feedback loops between higher education and the schools and districts their graduates serve and to provide better information to prospective teachers about which programs will best meet their needs and the needs of their future students.
- Improved working environments by:
- Helping principals create more staffing capacity on their administrative and/or instructional teams to fulfill all of their responsibilities well.
- Promoting higher-quality, ongoing professional development that explicitly addresses the individual needs of teachers and the needs of their students and schools.
- Ensuring schools have sufficient support staff (psychologists, guidance counselors, special education teaching aides, etc.) to meet the full swath of student needs.
- Clear career pathways that signal advancement in expertise and effectiveness to raise the status and appeal of the profession. These opportunities should reward our strongest teachers for taking on increasingly challenging roles and responsibilities through commensurate bumps in compensation and should do so without requiring them to become administrators.
- Adequate baseline salaries that:
- Align with the local professional labor market and cost of living.
- Provide higher pay for teachers working in hard-to-staff schools and subject areas.
So, while parents and students shower their teachers with tokens of appreciation this week, we urge our nation’s leaders to move beyond platitudes about teachers’ importance and offer clear strategies for ensuring they have the support, status, and compensation they deserve. Regardless of political party or persuasion, making strategic investments to attract and retain strong, passionate teachers is a move that will pay dividends for generations to come.