The most important factor in a child's education is teacher quality. At least in this respect, Education Matters agrees with No Child Left Behind. High quality teachers should be the top priority. Class size, facilities, textbooks, and curriculum all matter, but none of these raise to the level of who is teaching our children.
Let's consider real ways to promote teacher quality. Similar to the NCLB test-em-till-they-drop regimen, the NCLB bar has been raised on teachers, who must demonstrate competency in the subjects they teach. This sounds reasonable enough.
However, the reality is that teachers at high schools have often been assigned to teach classes in subjects for which they were not specifically trained. For example, an English teacher was assigned to teach a section of world history or a math teacher taught a science class. This system has changed under NCLB and one of the consequences is that school districts have to really scramble to find teachers that have the background mandated for every specific subject.
This is just one of many features of NCLB that makes teaching and school district management more difficult than ever before. As education jobs require additional certification, teacher compensation must be increased. Let's face it. Otherwise, we are not going to be able to find enough teachers who meet the NCLB requirements.
I am in contact with many teachers who are struggling to survive on teacher pay in the early part of their careers. Unlike other jobs, teachers are paid a specific, non-negotiable amount based on number of years experience and the number of graduate classes taken. School districts all have salary schedules which define the pay rate, with new teachers starting at approximately $35,000 and senior teachers earning sometimes as much as $70,000.
Following at least five years of public school teaching and reaching the age of 55, teachers can retire. Don't think a person can live on such a retirement pension! The amount of the retirement benefit varies greatly. Here are a few examples. Teaching 5 years and retiring at 55 would yield a whopping $210 per month. Teaching 24 years and retiring at age 60 yields approximately $2,500 per month.
Under the State Teacher Retirement System, teachers and school districts invest a percent of every paycheck throughout the teacher's career. The system is self-funded and yields a guaranteed subsistence-level pension, if a teacher works long enough to earn one.
As you can see by these estimates, teachers do not live in the lap of luxury. Yet teachers may be the single most important determinant of quality of life on this planet. They are required to meet an incredibly high bar in terms of their own education, including several years of graduate school. They are required to take additional classes throughout their career to keep up-to-date and knowledgeable. And they are frequently made to feel that they have chosen the wrong career when their schools are labeled NCLB failures - a public disgrace.
The demands of a teaching career have grown exponentially. Meanwhile, teacher-pay creeps upward at the rate of a three-toed sloth, with retirement benefits trudging along at a similar pace. Believe me, it is nearly impossible to recruit and retain quality teachers in this context.
And now, on top of everything else, another attack on teachers is in the works. There is a movement to privatize the teachers' retirement system. Assemblyman Keith Richman has proposed replacing the STRS guaranteed retirement pensions with a couple of private options. One plan would leave teachers completely uncovered for five years, when retiring at age 60. The other plan would reduce future teacher pensions by $16,000 a year from the current plan.
Of course, with private plans, there is an element of luck and financial savvy involved. Private investments might yield better benefits, but on the other hand, they might not! The fact is that teachers have been trusting STRS for years and do not want to change to private plans. Presidents of both of California's main teacher unions recently made clear that privatization is not what teachers want and would jeopardize even further a districts' ability to employ highly qualified teachers.
If we are to have fine public schools, teacher salaries and retirement benefits must be protected and improved. Furthermore, no single district can solve this problem. It is the state and federal government that must raise school funding significantly so that salaries can truly compensate educators. Otherwise, school districts must constantly rob Peter to pay Paul for every attempt they make to achieve adequate, appropriate salary levels.
No Child Left Behind, the fallacy
When NCLB Standards Meet Reality
Sandra Nichols is a Speech and Language Specialist for Santa Cruz City Schools, the Coordinator of Special Education for Spreckels Union School District in Monterey County and a School Board Trustee for the Pajaro Valley Unified School District. Her opinions are not necessarily those of any school district.
© Sandra Nichols 2001 - 2005