Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

A Serious Economic Agenda – Education

This week I began a series of posts about the need to address what is the foundation needed for a 21st Century economy. While other components can have a relatively quick impact, the effects of a competitive and relevant education system is long-term and yet crucial. We can keep on blindly following any of the other areas in the hope that something else occurs – like ceasing to depend upon oil by the time we have exhausted our supplies – but education is an investment that we will not be able to measure so easily or quickly.

If the US wants to remain the world leader, it needs to boast the best education system in the world. Currently, the US ranks 18th among the 36 industrial nations. There are many aspects of the education system that need overhaul, but I want to focus on something very tangible: the status of teachers.

I am proud of the fact that my sons are in public schools. I know we are lucky to live in an area where education is prioritized and a local politician cannot survive without offering more than lip service. Before we moved to the US, my wife and I considered applying to a private school for scholarships because we had heard a lot of negativity regarding the US public education system.

Then two separate parents told me that their children had endured difficult years in their private schools. It all depends on the teacher, one told me, and this resonated for me. Between them, my children have spent 8 years in the public school system, and there is only one teacher that I feel was less than very good, with the majority being excellent. By this I mean that they inspired our children to love science, maths, reading and art. They have helped to imbue a sense of citizenship in our children, who know how to respect and play with children of all colors and religions, as well as those with physical challenges. I see this every day in the variety of friends they hang out with and bring home for play dates.

An inspirational story that happens every day in our classrooms.

Some thoughts on teachers:

1. The Nine Month Year: Teachers don’t just need to know how to teach, they need to show up every day and be inspiring. They need to show patience and compassion at all times in the face of sensitive young souls, who can learn the wrong lesson in one careless exchange with a teacher. For this reason, I do not resent their summer vacation. Following on from this, I do not consider their salary being a reflection of nine months, as they need to pay rent and other bills for 12 months of the year. Neither do I want them flipping burgers during the summer, as one insensitive critic suggested, but recharging their batteries for the next year.

One teacher asked me to add that some of this summer ‘vacation’ is spent learning new methods or updating their curriculum.

2. Salaries: If we are serious about respect for the profession, we need to measure it in terms of financial rewards. Teachers seem to earn between $28K – $70K, the higher end going to those with Masters and Doctoral degrees, or extensive experience. Are we surprised that people would rather screw up in the financial world and receive six or seven-figure bonuses than need to succeed in a classroom? I can’t find an article I was reading that says professional retention among teachers under 35-year-old is now less than five years, but I read it very recently. In other words, even the most idealistic gets burnt out before they acquire much experience in the field.

How are we to finance a serious salary increase across the board without raising taxes? I’m not sure that we can in the short-term. Sure fixing that everyone (including corporations) pays taxes (to be dealt with in the next few posts), whether we can afford three wars simultaneously, and other such ideas would help.

But ignorance is just as expensive. “It has been projected that over the next five years, the state’s budget for locking up people will rise by 9 percent annually, compared with its spending on higher education, which will rise only by 5 percent. By the 2012-2013 fiscal year, $15.4 billion will be spent on incarcerating Californians, as compared with $15.3 billion spent on educating them.” – source.

3. Respect – finally there is the issue of respect. It is inconceivable that politicians and pundits denigrate and insult our teachers as we have seen over the past few months in regard to the labor struggle in Wisconsin. It is not just about lowering their own self-esteem, but what message are we giving the children who are sitting in their classroom? Please take a moment to watch the Daily Show skit below and feel free to swear along

The Daily Show – Recap – Week of 02/28/11

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).

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