I recently had the opportunity to join with a few educators in a meeting with a prominent political official in my state to discuss teacher pay. In the course of the discussion, our group shared compelling statistics about the growing teacher shortage, such as the fact that our state’s schools opened last year with 550 unfilled positions.
We also shared stories from the classroom, such as the increasing numbers of teachers having “no break days” because of the unpaid requirement to cover classrooms without a certified teacher. In every instance, the political official offered the same response with, “I am aware.” No request for additional information, and no indication of a plan for addressing the situation—all he said was, “I am aware.”
I’m not going to name the official here because doing so could make it seem like this interaction was an isolated incident, but unfortunately, it’s not. While not true of all policymakers, I’ve left far too many conversations with the impression that “being aware” of the challenges facing the teaching profession should be sufficient.
In this most recent instance, the policymaker promised only to write a letter to other elected officials expressing his belief that the teaching shortage is a critical challenge, but he would not include our recommendation that improved pay and work conditions were of paramount importance in addressing the challenge. This letter echoed the same implicit message teachers too often hear from elected officials—“We hear you that your job is hard and underpaid and disrespected. We are aware and that is enough.”
There was a time several years ago where I found some satisfaction in another political leader becoming aware of the challenges facing teaching, but that time has long since passed. In our current moment, someone would have to actively try not to be aware.
Our political discourse on teaching has been wonderfully informed by recent pieces like the brilliant writing in last month’s edition of Time or the recent USA Today article detailing the daily struggles of 15 different teachers, in addition to social media movements like #RedForEd. The recent “Teacher Spring” also brought home the reality of the dire state of the teaching profession for millions of Americans with children in schools where teachers walked out to demand better working conditions.
As a result, simply being “aware” is no longer enough. In fact, it’s not even enough to be aware of potential solutions to the problem. For example, earlier this fall E4E released a comprehensive report based on a national survey of teachers, and these results showed strong consensus among teachers about the power of measures like improved pay, decreased testing and increased autonomy to enhance teacher retention. We know how to “do better” and improve teacher retention.
What Bold Action Looks Like
So, in this moment, the time for being content with awareness is over. Now is the time for that awareness to lead to action—bold action. In my home state, “action” in the last legislative session meant a 1 percent pay increase, most of which is eliminated for any teacher that goes to the doctor due to rising health care deductibles. This is not the type of bold action needed to address a teaching shortage crisis.
If policymakers can’t find the will or resources to raise salaries directly, there are other, more creative solutions. One way to “raise” teacher pay would be to reduce the impact of student loan debt faced by millions of teachers. A mechanism is actually already in place for this in the form of the $350 million Congress recently appropriated for public service loan forgiveness. However, utilizing this resource will take political leadership that has been lacking, as a GAO report found that of the over 1 million applications for forgiveness submitted to the Department of Education by April 2018, only 55 had been forgiven.
Political leaders could also take bold action beyond current policies and proposals. For example, teachers spend their entire career educating our nation’s children, but low salaries make it hard for teachers to save for the future education of their own children. Programs to provide reduced or free college tuition to the children of long-time teachers could serve as a powerful retention tool and give teachers a current pay “raise” by reducing the need to contribute to college savings accounts.
It’s also important to note that the need to move from awareness to action doesn’t rest only with policymakers—it rests with each and every American voter. Martin Luther King Jr. once famously wrote of the danger of “lukewarm acceptance” devoid of action, and this type of tepid awareness by the American voter is a real threat to meaningful improvement in our schools. I often hear from people that they agree with a certain candidate on education, but they can’t and won’t vote for them because of their stances on other issues.
In response, I offer two questions. One, can the politician actually influence those other issues from the office they are seeking? Two, can they enact positive change in schools? The answers to those questions are more often than not “no” and “yes,” respectively, especially in state and local races. In that instance, if you don’t vote with education at the forefront, your awareness of the challenges facing teachers and schools is nothing more than “lukewarm acceptance” of an inadmissible status quo.