Why Won’t This Myth about Teachers Go Away?

It won’t be easy, but I’m going to avoid defending graduate programs for teachers. Instead, I want to take issue with a persistent myth about teacher pay that showed up once again in this article about teacher education. I can’t help but think that popular understandings of the history of teacher pay have had a bad influence on the way we think about teaching today.

If you’re involved in teaching you’ve probably seen the article. Too often, Grace Gedye alleges, hard-working teachers are forced to pay for useless graduate degrees. As Gedye charges,

the teachers I interviewed told me that they had spent too much time on theory and not enough on practical teaching skills; professors were too far removed from the classroom and using out-of-date pedagogy; and many programs simply weren’t rigorous.

I’m super biased so I won’t push the point too hard, but I have to briefly disagree with this premise. Feel free to discount my point, because I spend my days working with graduate students in a teaching program. The classes I teach focus on diving deeply into US history. Do my classes help my students on Sunday night with their plans for Monday morning? No. But knowing more about history and historical thinking can’t help but make them better history teachers. Right?

We can argue about graduate programs if we want, but instead I’d like to focus on a lil nugget buried deep in the heart of the article. Gedye mentions that teacher pay has long been tied to graduate education. As she recounts,

American teachers weren’t paid salaries at all well into the 19th century. Schools were largely community organized, and teachers’ compensation mostly consisted of free room and board.

Now, I’m not taking the author to task for this inaccurate summary of the history of teacher pay. She isn’t claiming to have done research about this history; she isn’t basing her argument on it. No, the problem is much bigger than that. The author is merely rehashing what she thinks is a commonly accepted truth. And she’s right: Generally, people tend to assume that this history of teacher pay is correct. It’s not. These assumptions about teacher pay are wildly false and hugely hurtful.

The assumption that teachers were historically unpaid or underpaid shows up all the time. For example, SAGLRROILYBYGTH may recall a recent flap about it from the Hoover Institution’s Eric Hanushek. Hanushek argued a few months back that teachers were generally underpaid because they went into the field “for love of kids, for feeling of social purpose, or for what-have-you.”

Certainly, plenty of teachers choose the field for those reasons. I did. But historically, teaching did not begin as a “service” profession, driven by low pay but high emotions. It’s no secret: In the USA, at least, teaching in the 1800s began as a highly paid, highly respected, highly unequal/hierarchical profession.

As I’m finding in the research for my upcoming book about the first big urban school reform, teachers originally had status as entrepreneurial businessmen and women. (Mostly men.) In the first decades of the 1800s, teachers ran schools as independent enterprises, making handsome incomes—not salaries—by attracting large numbers of tuition-paying students.

To be sure, there were also teachers who did not make big money, working at schools for lower-income students. Teachers at these “church schools” or “charity schools” were certainly the model for Dr. Hanushek’s vision of teacher motivation. But they were the exception.

What happened? When did teachers stop making big bucks? Here’s the important historical truth, the reason why this myth about teacher pay is so destructive: Teachers stopped making big paychecks when the government started paying for schools for all students. Once the taxpayers began footing the bill for low-income students, the race was on to find teachers who would work for peanuts.

Where could such teachers be found? It’s not a pretty story. First, cities like New York tried to get defenseless children to do it. In New York in 1818, the school board even flirted with the idea of making their youthful teachers indentured servants, to force them to work for free until they turned twenty-one.

When children proved unable to handle the task of teaching, reformers turned to another disempowered group, women. By the mid-1800s, child teachers were out of favor and women-teachers were in. Hiring women had the huge advantage of lower salaries, salaries that taxpayers would agree to pay.

Sorry to belabor this point, but I think this history of teacher pay matters. Why?

Well, first, I think it’s generally better to know the truth than to believe a convenient myth. But even aside from that lofty goal, we’ve got teacher pay back in the headlines, thanks to the presidential race. If we’re going to talk about teacher pay, we need to stop pretending that teachers have always been given skimpy salaries.

Imagining a past in which teachers worked for free is common, but leads to terrible assumptions. Namely, if teachers always worked for diddly, then we’ve made big progress. But it’s just not historically true. In fact, teachers went from highly paid experts to low-paid drones, exploited by their status as lower-powered members of society. First children, then women.

Knowing the real history clarifies what happened. There was a specific time when teacher pay dipped and respect for teachers dwindled—when the government took over paying for low-income students’ tuition. And knowing that history gives us a clear path to follow. Better teacher pay will happen only when the government stops trying to get something for next to nothing. Better teacher pay will come about through a saner government commitment to fully funding schools for all students.