Teacher Salaries and the Medieval Bloodletting of the Public Schools

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Many people know Dave Eggers for his entertaining first book A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. It's the story of the death of both his parents from cancer within a matter of months, and Eggers' subsequent raising of his younger brother to adulthood.

A few weeks ago, a New York Times op-ed, "The High Cost of Low Teacher Salaries," introduced me to the efforts of Eggers and his colleagues to educate the public on the need to elevate the status and salaries of teachers. The op-ed starts with a compelling analogy: when the U.S. runs into challenges in military conflicts, it doesn't start pointing fingers at men and woman fighting in the trenches for low pay and little recognition. Instead, we ask questions about the performance of military leaders and whether we are providing training and supports that give soldiers a chance to succeed.

Eggers' work on teachers began with the 2005 book, Teachers Have It Easy, co-authored with Daniel Moulthrop and Nínive Calegari. That book led to The Teacher Salary project, which has the goal of producing a film on the challenges and critical importance of teachers. That film, The American Teacher, began showing across the country earlier in May. (The Keystone Research Center hopes to organize showings in Harrisburg, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh — to get on a list for information on these showings, email frank@keystoneresearch.org, subject line “American Teacher.”)

The Teacher Salary Project seeks to educate Americans that this country has relatively low teacher pay compared to the most successful educational systems in the world. That's one reason it's difficult for American schools to retain their most talented teachers, especially in distressed communities. As Eggers and co-author Nínive Calegari point out in their op ed, heavy retirement in the next decade represent a golden opportunity to recruit a new generation of teachers with compensation, training, and supports essential to high-quality education.

Yet policymakers in Pennsylvania are running hard in the opposite direction. Cuts in public school funding will mean stagnant or lower pay, especially in our poorest districts. More education delivered in charter schools and private schools will mean greater inequality in pay in two senses: a bigger gap, on average, between the charter and private schools serving affluent students and those serving lower-income children; and a bigger gap, again on average, between the pay of school CEOs and principals and the pay of front-line teachers.

When public school performance predictably suffers, any chance this will be used to push privatization of education further? Heh, when the first round of medieval bloodletting doesn’t work, let’s bleed the patient a bit more.

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