Why education suffers

Eggers and Calegari have an excellent op-ed on the problem of American education: in short, it’s the money, stupid.

When we don’t get the results we want in our military endeavors, we don’t blame the soldiers. We don’t say, “It’s these lazy soldiers and their bloated benefits plans! That’s why we haven’t done better in Afghanistan!” No, if the results aren’t there, we blame the planners. We blame the generals, the secretary of defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff. No one contemplates blaming the men and women fighting every day in the trenches for little pay and scant recognition.

And yet in education we do just that. When we don’t like the way our students score on international standardized tests, we blame the teachers. When we don’t like the way particular schools perform, we blame the teachers and restrict their resources.

I’ve been getting a bit annoyed lately at the deference paid to the military. I keep seeing special acknowledgments paid to servicemen — on a recent shuttle ride to the airport parking lot, for instance, a fellow shouted out to the driver that he should drop off the guy in uniform first, to thank him for his service to the country…and then the driver had to take an awkward route through the lot, passing by other passenger’s cars, to drop this one fellow off first. It was extremely annoying — and to the credit of the fellow in uniform, he was also clearly uncomfortable with this pointless special treatment — but the guy who shouted out the demand sure looked smug and pleased with himself the whole way.

I do not lack appreciation for our soldiers, but seriously — they are not an elite caste. They are working class people like many of us. Why doesn’t someone shout out for special attention to cooks, or park rangers, or high school teachers? They all do great work for us, and the teachers in particular do an invaluable service at budget rates. But for some antiquated reason, we still think it more important to give Gomer Pyle a gun than to give a teacher the tools to do her job.

Also, you’d be financially deranged to go into teaching.

At the moment, the average teacher’s pay is on par with that of a toll taker or bartender. Teachers make 14 percent less than professionals in other occupations that require similar levels of education. In real terms, teachers’ salaries have declined for 30 years. The average starting salary is $39,000; the average ending salary — after 25 years in the profession — is $67,000. This prices teachers out of home ownership in 32 metropolitan areas, and makes raising a family on one salary near impossible.

Isn’t this absurd? It’s also not just a matter of averages: teachers in prosperous suburban schools get paid more than teachers in poor inner city schools. Those who need education the most get it the least. There ought to be a greater commitment to public education and more respect given to those who deliver it.

I know what you’re thinking, and so do the authors.

For those who say, “How do we pay for this?” — well, how are we paying for three concurrent wars? How did we pay for the interstate highway system? Or the bailout of the savings and loans in 1989 and that of the investment banks in 2008? How did we pay for the equally ambitious project of sending Americans to the moon? We had the vision and we had the will and we found a way.

It’s going to take a great deal of political will to accomplish this sort of change. Right now, the biggest obstacle to a better school system is a creaking, useless mechanism for funding schools that comes right out of the 18th century, and simply doesn’t work: the local tax levy. Schools should all be funded at the state level, at least (preferably at the federal level) and the game of bi-yearly begging for pennies on a property tax should end. Instead, though, our government is full of awful, anti-common-sense ninnies who prattle about vouchers and private schools instead, who want to reduce investment in education.