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on theory and not enough on practical teaching skills; professors were too far removed from the classroom and using out-of-date pedagogy; and many programs simply weren’t rigorous.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.

What’s Wrong with Teacher Raises?

Should public-school teachers earn more? Sure. But if we’re going by the recent recommendation for a “Grand Bargain” from Hoover’s Eric Hanushek, we should pump the brakes. Because talking about increasing salaries for some teachers is ultimately not the primary conversation we should be having about America’s public schools. We’ve been talking about the history of teacher pay on the Tweeter and I’ll adapt some of the conversation here.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH are tired of hearing me say it, but I’ll keep saying it anyway: Teachers are not the problem when it comes to school performance. Discussions about “merit pay” and “underperforming teachers” have long distracted attention from the main issue in America’s divided public-education system.

Historically, the first curve ball in teacher pay comes from our assumption that teachers have always received (relatively) low pay. Dr. Hanushek (and others) assume that teaching attracts high-quality candidates “for love of kids, for feeling of social purpose, or for what-have-you.”

But in the first half of the 1800s, teachers expected to make a lot of money. Famous teachers–mostly men, but some women too–would open entrepreneurial schools, usually based on some sort of proprietary method of teaching. They would try to attract tuition-paying families.

For example, the most famous teacher in the early 1800s, Joseph Lancaster, assumed that his teaching would make him rich. As he told his daughter in a letter from Boston on July 14, 1819, he would soon buy a “small estate for thee” because his teaching would make him “rich and independent.”

Lecture flyer 1

Lancaster still hoped to make a pile in 1834.

What happened? The low quality of the teaching was not the thing that drove down teacher pay. The uncomfortable historic truth is that teacher pay was driven down by the inclusion of low-income students in publicly available tuition-free schools.

Once tuition was taken out of the picture, public schools struggled to find ways to pay teachers enough. First they tried to get children to do the teaching for free. It didn’t work, because as soon as children got some teaching skills, they took paid jobs as teachers.

In the early 1800s, New York tried to solve this problem by FORCING children to teach for free until they were 21, pushing them into indentured servitude. (I know some teachers these days will say this sounds familiar…)

The problem historically has NOT been that most teachers have been willing to work for less. Rather, the problem has always been that governments—with good reason—wanted to provide education for all kids, regardless of their ability to pay.

That’s why Secretary DeVos’s recent pronouncements about public-school funding have been so grating, especially to historians.

Which gets us to Dr. Hanushek’s “Grand Bargain.” Historically, the bargain is flawed because it’s built on a faulty premise. Dr. Hanushek writes,

if the United States is to improve its schools, the available research indicates that the only feasible solution is to increase the overall effectiveness of our teachers.

That’s just not the case. Historically and today, the most obvious way to improve schools has not been to “increase the overall effectiveness of our teachers.” That’s not a bad goal, obviously, but it distracts attention from the proper conversation we should be having. Namely, the most obvious place to start–if we want to make public schools more effective–has been and will be to increase the overall affluence of our students.

When it comes down to it, the problem with Dr. Hanushek’s approach is not in the details. Rather, it is in the big picture. Too many reformers–smart ones and not-so-smart ones alike–try to tweak schools in order to make society more fair and equitable. I appreciate their goal and share it.

But schools alone cannot fix society. Schools ARE society. If we want a fair society, we cannot tweak schools, we need to heal society.

Pay teachers more? Yes, for sure. That makes sense if we want to attract and retain high-quality candidates. But if our first goal is to improve society, we should start with the more fundamental problem.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Have you ever wondered how conservative Christians think about porn? I haven’t really, but I read about it this week with a lot of interest. That story and more made our weekly review of ILYBYGTH-themed news ‘n’ views:

Porn and the evangelical community: Samuel Perry talks about his new book Addicted to Lust, at NY.

What I found is that, whatever we think pornography is doing, those effects tend to be amplified when we’re talking about conservative Protestants. It seems to be uniquely harmful to conservative Protestants’ mental health, their sense of self, their own identities—certainly their intimate relationships—in ways that don’t tend to be as harmful for people who don’t have that kind of moral problem with it. . . .

But for women, if they are lusting over things visually—if they are looking at things like pornography and masturbating to them or getting turned on—they really feel like an extreme pervert. They experience what I would call a double shame. They are violating their own sexuality in a way that God doesn’t want. So they’re sinning, but they’re also sinning like a man. And so they feel trapped.

In my neighborhood, a group of kids just attacked an elderly man, at BJS.

The end of an era: Moody Bible Institute shuts down its student newspaper, at RNS.

Ew: looks like Trump’s “fixer” fixed some photos for Jerry Falwell Jr., Reuters reports.

Strikes at Chicago charters win big concessions, at Chalkbeat.

chicago charter protestTraining kids as first responders: Should we have ‘active-shooter’ drills in schools? This mom says no.

Losing our ability to feel shame, at FPR.

It doesn’t take a great act of the imagination to apply the rebuke to those of us today who enjoy watching the train-wreck conversations that often accompany the comments sections of various online media outlets—for, as Dante well knew, there is an immense and indecent pleasure in watching other people, especially people whom we instinctively feel ourselves better than, hate one another.

More from Senator Warren on college-debt forgiveness—will a racial angle win more votes? At IHE.

And (a little) more about Senator Harris’s edu-funding plan at The Atlantic.

“It is completely upside down that we currently have a system where the funding of a school district is based on the tax base of that community,” the Democratic hopeful vying to run against President Donald Trump in 2020 said. The line met with approving head nods and a chorus of agreement. “It’s just basic math,” she continued, on a roll. “The community that has the lowest tax base is going to receive the fewest resources, and by the way probably [has] the highest need.”

Pandering? Or Progress?

What do you think? Is Senator Harris’s new plan to raise teacher pay a real winner? Will it improve public schooling? Or is it just an election-season stunt, a way to gain attention without really solving any problems?

Kamala Harris

A winner?

Here’s what we know: In a speech at Texas Southern University, the Democratic 2020 presidential hopeful outlined a plan to increase pay for public-school teachers. In brief, Senator Harris is pledging $315 billion to raise teacher pay an average of ten percent. Here’s how NBC described the plan:

According to the Harris campaign, the goal is to eventually increase teacher pay by an average of $13,500 per person, putting it in line with typical salaries for other employees with college degrees. Campaign materials pointed to research by the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute that found teachers make 11 percent less than college-educated workers on average in combined salary and benefits.

Under the California senator’s plan, the federal government would finance 10 percent of the total pay increase for the first year and then pay out 3 dollars to states for every 1 dollar they put into additional salaries.

It would commit additional funds to further increase salaries for teachers in highest-need schools along with a “multi-billion dollar investment” in career development for educators. Half of it would go toward teachers studying at historic black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and other institutions with predominantly minority students.

In a sense, Harris’s plan is merely a continuation of a Democratic Party tradition. In the 2016 campaign, Comrade Sanders liked to call vaguely for better pay for public-school teachers. As Sanders liked to say back then,

the top 25 hedge fund managers earned more than the combined income of 425,000 public school teachers.

But Sanders didn’t offer the kind of detail that Harris has laid out this year. Clearly, the echoes of teacher strikes over the past two years have changed the political landscape of progressive politics.

Conservatives are likely to see this proposal as dangerous and extreme. As ed commentator Rick Hess told Politico, it sounds like more of a fantasy for the primary season than a real plan for the Oval Office. As Hess put it,

I don’t know that it’s being proposed as actionable legislation so much as a marker. . . . Republicans, in particular, are nervous about once you open that barn door, just how involved Washington winds up getting in local education decisions and deciding who gets hired, how they get compensated.

And progressives are not falling over themselves to celebrate, either. As my favorite progressive-ed observer noted, Harris’s plan has some glaring problems. As Curmudgucrat Peter Greene tweeted,

If a Dem wants to score points with teachers, pledge to kill test-driven faux accountability. Pledge to champion public ed over privatization. Pledge to put actual educators in charge of Ed Department. Get the federal government out of teachers’ way. And don’t make teachers have to negotiate with DC for their next raise.

All good points, but I can’t help but feel optimistic when I see that teacher-pay is at least being discussed in more depth and detail this campaign season. Like they say, “If you aren’t at the table, you’re on the menu.”

Workin’ 9 to 5 (then 5 to 9)

We’ve heard the stories from the teachers’ strikes. Teachers in Oklahoma, West Virginia, Colorado, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Arizona walked off their jobs to protest low salaries and weak funding of public schools. One of the common complaints was that teachers had to work two or three jobs just to make ends meet. They were Uber drivers, bartenders, and tutors in addition to their day jobs. Are things really so bad for teachers?

New survey data puts some numbers behind those anecdotal claims. A report from the National Center for Education Statistics for 2015-2016 finds that significant numbers of teachers are working at least one additional job to earn a few thousand extra dollars. As I’m finding in my current research, teachers have always needed to work outside of school to make ends meet.

Two hundred years ago, for example, Joseph Lancaster’s daughter and son-in-law moved to Mexico to start some Lancasterian schools. They hoped at least to be able to make ends meet, but it turned out not to be so easy. Back then, son-in-law Richard M. Jones assumed he’d be able to set up a few income streams. He hoped to get a regular salary from a fully enrolled school. But he also counted on earning even more money teaching individual students on the side.

Unfortunately for Jones, he couldn’t find any students to tutor. No one seemed to want to hire Jones to teach their children English. As he wrote wryly to Lancaster in 1826,

so much for the desire to learn the English Language in the  Great City of Mexico.

Of course, Jones was blind to the likely effect of his own attitude. As he had written to Lancaster in March,

You have can have [sic] no idea of the miserably priest-ridden state of nine tenths of these people, the extreme disposition to indolence rob, gamble . . . without one speck of honor, love of country, or a due proportion of pride, rather beg than do the least thing for a livelihood.

Not the kind of attitude I would want in my kid’s tutor if I were an affluent Mexican parent!Teacher second jobs NCES

How about these days? The survey data from NCES shows that just about one in five public-school teachers work at least one additional job. The largest segment work as tutors. Let’s not forget, too, that these jobs are only the ones taken outside of the district system. Most teachers I know also take additional jobs INSIDE their districts. Athletic coaches, for example, can earn a little extra money while building good connections with students and helping school spirit.

The more frightening statistic, in my opinion, is the number of teachers who leave the field of education. Like Richard M. Jones in 1826, many teachers plan to

bid adieu to the System and teaching and all connected with it and turn my attention to business in some shape or other.

In the meantime, lots of teachers are working 5 to 9 to make ends meet. What do you think? Is it outrageous that so many teachers need to take on outside work to make a living?