A good family friend recently told me about a $175 steak offered at a high-end restaurant in Las Vegas. I wondered what kind of magic cow could produce such a piece of meat, and who are the people willing to fork over that kind of cash to devour one?

This is America. We pay 4000% mark up for a good cup of coffee. We add several hundreds of dollars to the cost of a two-hour flight for the pleasure of sitting in first class which includes a couple of drinks, and a few extra service touches that make flying civilized. We pay extra for lounging chairs in movie theaters. We believe in the power of money and the promise of premium, meaning, we pay more for things we assume are of better quality.

Except for teachers. They’re screwed.

We expect high quality, but we aren’t willing to pay the cost of being the boss.

John Fensterwald from EdSource has a Huffington Post piece about the problem, based on a new report from the Economic Policy Institute:

Pay for teachers has stagnated nationally over the past two decades, and fallen behind earnings of other workers with college degrees, the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington-based nonpartisan think tank, concluded in a report released Tuesday.

In 1994, teachers earned on average 1.8 percent less than other comparable workers; by 2015, they earned 17 percent less, adjusted for inflation. Factoring in total compensation, including health benefits and pensions, teachers earned the same as other workers with college degrees in 1994 but 11 percent less by 2015, the report found.

There is never a good time to under-pay teachers, but this time might be the worst. According to the report mentioned from the EPI, “At the same time [that teacher wages are depreciating], many factors are increasing the demand for teachers, including shrinking class sizes, the desire to improve diversity, and the need to meet high standards…In short, the demand for teachers is escalating, while simultaneously the supply of teachers is faltering.”

We want high-quality teachers capable of teaching students of color, the new majority in public schools. We want these teachers to be talented and connected to the communities in which they teach. But we’re making them a lousy job offer: work hard, eat little.

We want smaller classes and outsized gains in student achievement, but the pipeline of new teachers is too weak to meet the need.

All put together, shouldn’t that spur premium pricing for teacher salaries?

Nobody gives teachers and their unions a harder time about quality and results than I do. It’s to the point that people believe it’s personal with me (it’s not). I just can’t see how the question of quality teaching is disconnected from the issue of pay.

Yet, when we discuss connecting teacher pay to quality and expectation for results we enter a peanut gallery of conflicting interests. We fall down a dark and cold mine shaft of arguments about the definitions of those ends, the ways we are to measure them, and, in some cases, whether pay and performance should be connected at all.

No blog post will solve that one. Still, wherever you sit in the education wars you have to admit that great teaching is probably harder than what you do. You can’t be serious as a citizen about investing in subsequent generations if you aren’t willing to reward the people tasked with facilitating the intellectual development of children.

Teachers often say they don’t enter the profession for the money. It’s a rejoinder meant to express they have noble intentions for pursuing teaching. I appreciate the thought, but I think they should stop saying it. Whether you like it or not money matters to Americans and it will always be difficult to entice new entrants into the field if it is widely known that doing so means vowing to poverty and being viewed as the one profession least valued in terms of compensation.

If we’re willing to splurge on premium costs for things that aren’t essential, like steaks and chairs on planes or in movie theaters, it’s inconceivable that we would continue to depreciate the people we expect to be caring, competent, and committed when they stand before our children in classrooms.

Chris Stewart is the Chief Executive Officer of Education Post, a media project of the Results in Education Foundation. He is a lifelong activist and 20-year supporter of nonprofit and education-related causes. Stewart has served as the director of outreach and external affairs for Education Post, the executive director of the African American Leadership Forum (AALF), and an elected member of the Minneapolis Public Schools Board of Education.


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