student achievement

Some Thoughts From a Teacher on What People Think About Teachers

Education Next’s recent poll offers a fascinating peek into what Americans think about a wide array of educational issues—teacher pay, school spending, immigration and school choice. As a former classroom teacher and now associate professor at a teachers college, I was particularly interested in the poll’s results on teacher pay, teacher performance and where precisely the onus for student achievement ought to lie.

Teacher Pay

The first piece of data that caught my eye was teacher pay. Not surprisingly, most people expressed their belief that teachers ought to be paid higher salaries. What was surprising, however, was how mistaken many people were about exactly how much teachers get paid. “Most Americans believe that teachers earn far less than they actually do. When asked to estimate average teacher salaries in their state, respondents’ average guess came in at $40,181—31 percent less than the actual figure of $58,297.” Respondents were all in favor of increasing teacher salaries until they found out what teachers currently earn. So apparently, teachers are worth more than $40,000 annually, but no more than $60,000. So when the average yearly income for a doctor is $189,000, a lawyer, is $139,880 and a Wall Street financier is $375,000, while a teacher makes barely, $60,000, we can’t feign surprise when for the first time ever, a majority of parents don’t want their children to become teachers. We value what we pay for.

Teacher Shortages

Continuing on, there was a striking discrepancy concerning pay for performance metrics. Most Americans, I would argue understandably, believe that teachers ought to be held accountable for student learning. Teachers, however, thought otherwise.
When asked whether part of teachers’ pay should be ‘based on how much their students learn,’ 48 percent of the public express support and 36 percent are opposed...Among teachers, however, just 22 percent favor merit pay as 73 percent are against it.
It makes sense that nearly half of Americans believe that teachers should be held accountable for student learning. That, after all, is our job, to educate. It is a car salesperson’s job to sell cars. If they can’t sell cars, they will likely be fired. It is an architect’s job to construct a building that won’t collapse. If it falls, the architect will likely not be hired again. But for some reason, many of us teachers have internalized the notion that we ought not be held accountable for the very thing we have been hired to accomplish; accelerating the academic achievement of our students. I agree with many reasons for teachers mistrusting performance-based metrics, and there are certainly best practices for establishing such metrics. But for nearly three quarters of us to argue that we should not be held accountable for student learning is, quite frankly, embarrassing. We are professionals charged with among the most important tasks in the country, that of educating the next generation of Americans. It is a task that cannot be left to chance or guesswork. We need our performance tied to our student outcomes. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Who’s Responsible for Student Learning

When Americans were asked what was more important for a child’s academic learning, “39 percent point to the home while 31 percent give the nod to the school and another 31 percent say they are of equal importance...Teachers, meanwhile, are much more likely to say the home is more important for academic learning than the school. Nearly half of teachers, 47 percent, choose the home and just 18 percent opt for the school.
I feel a general agreement with the roughly equitable distribution of responsibility for a child’s education between school and home. That seems to make sense. But teachers, what are we thinking here? Not even 1 out of 5 of us think schools bear the burden of shouldering the responsibility for a child’s education? Does home matter? Of course! Does creating working partnerships with families matter? Of course! Are there systemic issues outside of school that need to be addressed? Absolutely! But there is nothing, nothing, more impactful for a student’s educational experience than what happens within the halls and classrooms of the school building. For us as educators to assert otherwise is simply an exercise in deflection.

The Truth Is in the Middle

Teachers need to get paid more, and they need to be held accountable for their job performance. However, there needs to be thoughtful, authentic and diversified means of assessing that performance. A young person is best served by the partnership of a supportive home and a fully-resourced school. What do you think?
Zachary Wright 
Zachary Wright is an assistant professor of practice at Relay Graduate School of Education, serving Philadelphia and Camden, and a communications activist at Education Post. Prior, he was the twelfth-grade world literature and Advanced Placement literature teacher at Mastery Charter School's Shoemaker Campus, where he taught students for eight years—including the school's first eight graduating ...

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