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A More Perfect Union, Part 1

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Ms. Lauren over at Feministe recently pointed me to some interesting blog entries on teachers and teacher unions.

Generally speaking, I support teacher unions and advocate better salaries and working conditions for teachers [a.k.a., smaller student-to-teacher ratios, which actually benefits students more than teachers]. I’m willing to put my money where my mouth is and pay more in property taxes to help achieve those goals in my community.

But I need the NEA and teacher unions in general to take a step forward into the current century, too. They’re stuck in the past, working with old contract models and fighting some of the wrong battles. For starters, unions need to:

  • Stop saying that grading student work is a task that teachers are not compensated for.
  • Change teacher contracts so that teachers get paid based on workload and merit, and not just on years of experience and post-college credits.
  • Get rid of tenure so that useless teachers can be replaced with new, good ones.
  • Acknowledge that teacher benefit packages are too expensive for communities to support going forward.

What’s a good liberal like me talking about? Below you’ll find statements from a blogger and from a 2003 NEA report called Status of the American School Teacher, followed by my commentary.

It Only Feels Like You’re Not Being Paid

Teachers spend an average of 50 hours per week on instructional duties, including an average of 12 hours each week on non-compensated school-related activities such as grading papers, bus duty, and club advising.

The NEA might have an argument about bus duty and club advising, but sorry, grading papers is not a non-compensated activity. It’s part of a teacher’s job, as are preparing lessons and giving students extra help. I taught writing courses, and I knew when I agreed to teach them that I’d be doing work at home. A teacher’s job does not begin when the first bell rings and end when the last one does. Teachers have homework, too. They just do.

The NEA isn’t identifying the real problem here, which the unions themselves have wrought: Teachers with the same years of experience and education level get paid the same salary no matter how demanding their jobs are or aren’t. English teachers, for example, get the same basic pay as gym teachers, even though English teachers have a lot more work to do on a daily basis.

This is not a statement against gym teachers. But really, a high school English teacher usually has five classes of 30-ish students each. A good English teacher will give weekly writing assignments [or close to it]. That means a good English teacher will need to review and comment on, and sometimes grade, 150 writing assignments per week. That’s a lot of work.

What does the gym teacher do at night while the English teacher is developing lesson plans and reviewing student papers? Coach the j.v. basketball team? And get paid to do it, while the English teacher gets nothing extra when s/he works at night? Why in the world should they receive the same salary when the English teacher clearly works more?

Because that’s what the union has worked out. So it’s not, as the NEA says, that teachers who grade papers do uncompensated work. It’s that their contract bases salary on the wrong things, so it feels like they’re uncompensated because they work more than some of their peers.

Can you think of anybody who would like to be paid the same as an equally educated and experienced colleague who works only, say, 60% of the hours?

Rewarding the Wrong Behavior

For one, of course, unions have made certain that teacher pay is commensurate with education and experience: More than half of us have graduate degrees because we’re encouraged to expand our education by favorable contractual clauses.

[From here.]

Hey, there’s nothing like practicing what you preach, so incentives to continue teacher education are good. And paying for tuition is a competitive job benefit. Most big companies see it that way too because they pay tuition reimbursement for job-related training/education.

But this benefit sometimes backfires against hard-working teachers, those who put in a lot of hours after school and at home. When do they have time to take classes? But the teachers who just sleepwalk through every school year, teaching the same class the same way without any new effort have plenty of time to take classes. So teachers who work less can get pay increases while teachers who work more can’t, or can’t as easily.

Remember the lazy teachers in your schools? Well, chances are your favorite, hard working teachers earned a lot less than them. Brilliant plan.

To top it off, I don’t really need a gym teacher to have a Ed.D. that was paid for by taxpayers and that results a higher salary when the teacher works the same number of hours and supervises whiffle golf exactly the same way s/he did before getting the Ed.D. If a teacher’s education doesn’t impact the classroom, then it shouldn’t automatically result in higher pay.

You want to pay teachers who have lots of after-school work more money? You want to pay hard working, energetic, effective teachers more money, even if they’re still young? Then do it. But then you’ll have to pay the ones who work less … LESS.

It seems pretty simple: Pay teachers by what they do and how well they do it. Will the NEA and local teacher unions ever agree to that? I doubt it.

Compound Fracture: Tenure

Tenure compounds the pay structure debacle. Nobody has ever been able to effectively explain to me why, say, a public school kindergarten teacher needs tenure. In fact, I dare anyone to try right now.

Tenure locks bad teachers in while keeping new, potentially good teachers out. It’s nothing more than life-long job security for someone who has put in an exceptionally small number of years of service, like three or four. So a 25-year-old with three years of teaching under his or her belt “earns” permanent job security. For the next 25, 30, or 40 years, s/he can just punch the clock and go collect those post-college credits to get paid more.

This tenure arrangement gives teachers no reason to continue working hard and every reason to stop working hard. All that’s left is intrinsic motivation, and not all teachers have it or keep it. Those that do, as we know, suffer the frustration of being paid the same as their peers who give little effort. And parents are stuck trying to keep their kids out of the bad teachers’ classes, while new teachers can’t get a foot in the door because all the positions are locked up by teachers who long since quit being dedicated but who can’t be fired, it seems, unless they’ve committed a capital crime.

In addition, non-tenured teachers regularly receive “lay-off” notices at the end of the school year and spend their summer in uncertainty. Why? Because the tenure system is such a lock and budgets are so uncertain (a lot of planning and budget decisions get made in the summer) that schools are forced to cover their bases by giving yellow slips to teachers they might not be able to bring back. So some of the hardest working teachers are the most angry and frustrated, and they sometimes quit the profession very young.

So what are the incentives for good teachers? I know that some teachers are dedicated and outstanding and would work just as hard for even less money than they earn now. But the NEA and teacher unions constantly bring up teacher compensation as a major issue. So money must be an incentive, right? Then the unions need to figure out how to help teachers get it. And sticking to the old contract models won’t help them do that.

I realize that I probably sound either anti-teacher or at least negative toward teachers. But that’s not true. I’m just tired of talking to excellent teachers who can’t get a public school job, when I know full well that some tenured teachers should have been fired long ago. And I’m tired of hearing that teachers don’t make enough money when only some teachers don’t: the good ones.

Thus endeth the first part of a two-part entry on public school teachers and teacher unions. Or maybe it will be three parts — we’ll see. In the next installment, I’ll talk about salary range, benefits packages, and merit pay based on teacher performance [a.k.a., how do you measure it?].

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