In the last year, I’ve visited four different classrooms, three of them within New York City. During my visits, I noticed similar trends: well-organized classrooms, bell schedules, students of varying dispositions (including behaviors), and lesson plans timed thoughtfully from beginning to end. Each of these classrooms was in a different school (and one was in a completely different state), but the job itself more or less felt familiar. We know from research that the American public generally trusts their local teacher. The American public also may believe in innovation, but generally want schools to look similar in form and function to their upbringing. We can debate the technology argument up and down, but whether virtually or in-person, the job on paper hasn’t changed much in the last two decades.
But doing the job has become that much harder for the intangibles. We can recognize that the intangibles have probably led to the mass exodus from one of our great professions. Some credible estimates show about 300K to 750K K-12 educators across the country no longer work in our schools.
The American Teacher Act seeks to rectify at least some of the “on paper” elements here. Highlights from Congressmember Wilson include:
- Awarding grants for enacting and enforcing a $60K minimum teacher salary with federal allocations to states and districts
- Cost-of-living adjustments for said minimums
- Securities on the grants to keep federal monies from replacing district and state funds allocated for teacher salaries
- Provisions for part-time teachers and existing salary schedules
A plethora of organizations have endorsed it including the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers (as well as this post from Dave Eggers at McSweeneys). This would go a long way toward signaling to our almost 17 thousand school districts that teachers – and all educators including support staff – deserve higher salaries for the work necessary to move students forward in their education and their lives. Teachers already work overtime to grade papers, create lesson plans, and get classroom materials with their own money. They shouldn’t, then, have to work another job or three to make ends meet. America lost a plethora of teachers since March of 2020. Some credible estimates show about 350K to 750K K-12 educators across the country no longer work in our schools. Our capitalist society would make teaching more coveted by simply augmenting salaries in a sustainable way.
Recruitment and retention are problems worth addressing, and this bill takes a good first step.
At the same time, I also believe bills like these also need societal shifts in thinking as well. Peter Greene addresses good critiques in his blog, and I want to take a more societal lens here. While true that American teachers still have a great approval rating, we’ve also seen a dip in that approval rating since conservatives have gone on the offensive to diminish public education through antitruth movements. The end goal isn’t just to diminish, if not eliminate curricula that could be seen as racially and socially just, but to wane the credibility of an institution that is intended to serve people in a democratic society.
We were already having issues with working conditions and such before COVID-19. Our teacher problem is a societal problem.
Believe it or not, this bill reminds me politically of the Common Core State Standards. Yes, I’ve had a plethora of critiques for the CCSS, especially on implementation and accountability. But the thrust of the policy process was what they felt they could accomplish: convince every state to take this initiative on, tie it to funding of some sort, make adjustments on a local level, and see what it does for student knowledge. To this day, even the states that have “repealed” the CCSS merely renamed the standards. The win is that most states still follow the learning. Proponents of the CCSS played would say that, yes, we need people to read texts closely for understanding and that the “basics” won’t do it anymore.
Similarly, I hope that the American Teacher Act pushes districts across the country to raise salaries for teachers even if they don’t win a grant for it. We can’t have “basic” salaries for a profession so critical to the future of society. (And really, we need to raise the minimum wage to about $27, but that’s this conversation, too.)
With so many people blaming teachers for responsibilities that our governments should take on, it’s imperative that we both raise the salaries of those entrusted with moving society forward and hold governments responsible for helping teachers do better.
Because education is inherently political, our politics need to treat education better. Our politics should include rectifying this egregious discrepancy.
P.S. – Please do follow my Instagram as I’m posting my learning more regularly over there, including my classroom visits.