Teachers are not the problem
by WVEA President Dale Lee - October 2, 2012
One just has to read the newspaper or listen to the radio or TV and it is fairly easy to recognize why many of our best and brightest students do not choose teaching as a profession. Teachers are constantly portrayed as the villains for all of the problems that plague our education system.
As a society, we don’t blame crime on the police. We don’t blame our cavities on our dentists. We don’t blame fires on the fireman or cancer on doctors. But we certainly blame the perceived problems in our education system on teachers. Why is that?
The vast majority of teachers go to school each and every day with one goal in mind – to be the best teachers they can and to do all they can to help the students in their class succeed. They buy their own supplies and pay from their own pocket to take classes to better their teaching skills. They are just as dedicated to their craft as doctors, accountants, businessmen and other professionals.
And yet, teachers are constantly vilified in today’s society. Sadly, many teachers encourage their own children to enter other professions. They cite low pay, morale issues and respect as key components.
I can’t say I know how to fix all of the issues that our education system faces. However, I say with a high level of certainty the recent Education Efficiency Audit conducted by the consulting firm Public Works LLC doesn’t contain the magic bullet.
One key component is missing from the “efficiency” audit; an extensive dialogue with the people who are in the schools every day – teachers. When we have a crisis in business we call in businessmen to solve the problems. The same is true with a medical or banking crisis. When issues arise, we tend to call in the people who have experience in the chosen arena. Not so when it comes to education.
If teachers were asked, I believe they would say education is suffering from a series of internal and external factors. The external factors included poverty, absenteeism, lack of parental involvement, etc. Internal factors include: poor policy/curriculum choices at the federal, state and county level, the emphasis on standardized testing, the push for all students to learn the same thing at the same pace, etc.
For many who have read this far; they are now saying to themselves, “Here we go again. The unions are telling us what we need to do. Teacher unions are the problem.” After all, it is just convenient to blame teachers and blame teacher unions.
Let me first say that teachers and the union are one and the same. The union doesn’t exist without the teachers. Teachers are the decision makers in the union and create the policy to be followed and decide the issues to be addressed.
In West Virginia, WVEA members have been instrumental in crafting many laws and policies that have positively influenced public education and benefited students. When teacher unions are involved, teachers have a voice and that is a positive step to improving public education.
As Professor Paul Thomas of Furman University states, “The anti-union message in public education…has no basis in evidence.” Instead, Thomas points out, “Union states tend to correlate with higher test scores.” In fact, states that typically have the highest rating for the quality of their public schools – Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, etc., are states that have collective bargaining and are highly unionized.
Conversely; according to a 2010 study by Matthew Di Carlo, states in which there are no teachers covered under union agreements score lower on standardized assessment tests than the states that have them. Di Carlo says “…if anything, it seems that the presence of a strong teacher union in a state has a positive effect on achievement.”
Teachers and teacher unions are certainly not an isolated factor in improving student achievement, but play a key role in student success. Historically, WVEA and its members have fought for equality of opportunity in public education, adequate funding for our public schools and policies designed to improve student achievement.
Teachers are in the classroom because they are dedicated and want to make a difference in the lives of children. A recent New York Times article pointed out the average elementary teacher in the U.S. earns about 67% of the salary of an average college-educated worker in the United States. The Times also points out, the ratio of teacher pay to that of other college graduates is wider in the U.S. than in most other developed countries.
Countries, like Finland or Norway, are constantly cited as examples of model education systems. In those nations, teachers are highly unionized, highly respected and well paid. It is an honor to be a teacher in many nations. In West Virginia, teachers are often thought of as the enemy.
Let’s stop pointing the finger of blame at teachers and teacher unions and begin talking about some of the real issues that are confronting our public schools!
Dale Lee is a special education teacher at Princeton Senior High School in Mercer County with 22 years of classroom experience. He is currently on leave serving as the elected president of the WVEA.