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Commitment to the Future
On Monday March 14th, President Obama gave a speech pushing for changes to education. “I want every child in the country to head back to school in the fall knowing that their education is America ‘s top priority.” he said. The following day, March 15th, thousands of pink slips were issued to teachers across the country notifying them of possible lay offs for the coming school year due to budget cuts and fiscal shortfalls. In most states, the law requires a teacher to be notified at least sixty days prior to job termination. Here in California 19,000 teachers received notice that they may not have a job for the 2011-2012 school year. Over the past three years, 30,000 California teachers have lost their jobs due to budget cuts and the state ‘s financial crisis. In his speech, Obama also declared, “a budget that sacrifices our commitment to education would be a budget that ‘s sacrificing our country ‘s future.” If past practice is any indication of commitment, our educational system, and our country ‘s future, is already in serious jeopardy.
This year, in addition to the financial insults that teachers have endured regarding low salaries and slashed benefits, they have also had to weather social scrutiny regarding how qualified they are to do their jobs, their level of commitment to the students and whether they are entitled to the pensions that await them at the end of their careers. No other profession is as pivotal to the future success of this nation, as educators yet no single group has taken more hits this year than teachers. According to a study done by McKinsey & Co (“Closing the Talent Gap”) it is estimated that almost half of all U.S. teachers will retire within the next ten years. The campaign to attract bright new talent to the profession needs to start now. But with the rhetoric leveled against educators and the stringent demands of the job, many college hopefuls will be looking to other professions where the pay and professional respect are worth the effort.
In the past, incentives such as college loan forgiveness has enticed new graduates to choose teaching as a profession. Because of state budget shortfalls during the last five years, however, many of those newcomers were cut from teaching positions as the layoff policies in most districts are based solely on seniority. A teacher needs to be in a low performing school for a specific number of years before his educational loans can be forgiven. If a teacher loses his job before that time, he runs the risk of losing the “forgiveness” incentive. Until the unions relax their stranglehold on seniority and tenure policies, new teachers will always be at risk for losing their jobs first when the budget ax falls.
While Obama speaks loudly and often about teacher quality, the profession remains devoid of merit incentives. Teaching is an affective profession and most individuals enter into it because of a desire to help kids, not acquire wealth. However, in the majority of school districts the very worst teachers are paid exactly the same, or more in some cases of seniority, as the very best. Teacher unions are adamant about blocking reform that includes merit pay or performance incentives. Creative solutions like allowing teachers to receive a percentage of any grant money that they apply for and bring in, may be one way that districts can “reward” teachers for extra effort without arousing suspicion and scorn from the unions.
Countries like Singapore, Finland and South Korea recruit their teachers from the top third of graduating students. The government pays for all the training and education and their teaching salaries are commensurate with other top professions. Here in the United States, it is no surprise that less than a quarter of new U.S. teachers come from the top third of college graduates. Here a teacher might start with a salary of $45,000 and top out at $85,000 after thirty years of service. Teacher salaries are barely a living wage and when retirement, union dues and taxes are subtracted, many teachers need to work a second job to make ends meet. If the the government was sincere in wanting to recruit the best and brightest to the teaching profession, one irrefutable way to attract them would be to offer tax waivers or special tax deductions for teachers only. Teachers do, after all, contribute to their own salaries through taxes, so why not offer a waiver on twenty five percent of their salary? Providing affordable housing and special loan programs for mortgages is another incentive to attract quality professionals to education.
Chairperson of the House Education committee Rep. John Kline of Minnesota remarked on President Obama ‘s speech by saying that “the president ‘s remarks affirm the importance of fixing the nation ‘s broken educational system.” Affirming the importance is a good start but initiating an action plan to establish necessary reform is essential. It has been the practice of the American government to address the dysfunction of the American school system by throwing more standardized testing at the problem. Our current situation is a testament to how that does not work. It is clear that what is needed is an infusion of support for quality educators and a plan for attracting top talent to the educational arena. We need to restructure the role of educators in this country by elevating their level of respect and importance and by rewarding them for quality performance and professional commitment.