Teachers in U.S. deserve more respect

Every year, America spends more than $500 billion on elementary and secondary education, much of that on our teachers. We do this because we know that they are among the country’s essential expenditures.

And yet, most of us know amazingly little about teachers as a group or as individuals. For example, there are 3.6 million teachers in our 133,000 schools and 14,000 school districts. Did you know that 70 percent are female, the median age is 46, and 60 percent earned a master’s degree or higher? Or that two-thirds have more than 10 years in the classroom and they teach, on average, 87 students per day? Or that more than 80 percent of public school teachers are white, with African-Americans and Hispanics each accounting for about 7 percent of the teaching force?

Or that the average salary for a public school teacher is a little more than $55,000, a shamefully low figure, considering the importance of their work, the complexity of teaching, and that, on average, they work more than 50 hours per week?

One thing we do know about teachers is that they are entrusted with our youngsters, to assure that our nation continues as a prosperous and stable force for good.

Unfortunately, last year was not a good year for teachers and countless other Americans. Our once-robust economy was in shambles. Rampant unemployment ravaged many parts of society. The new year is likely to show measured improvement but few in business and industry are willing to predict what will happen if our political system remains in political gridlock and our government continues to eschew compromise.

This financial crunch has put education funding under severe pressure. But, to their credit, school administrators have been scrupulous in trying to protect outstanding teachers, placing them on lists to be rehired when the economy recovers.

Thankfully, in the fall of 2011 there were fewer teacher layoffs than expected. A survey of large urban school districts found that half had no layoffs and the average layoff rate was 2.5 percent, pretty small compared to the 5 percent that many had expected. But this average figure hides unsightly warts: instances where school districts in hard-hit locales such as California and Ohio laid off 10 percent or even 20 percent of teachers.

To many, teaching is still a prized profession, a calling as much as a job. They aren’t in it for the money. Given the nation’s financial situation, most realize that levels of compensation are not likely to change anytime soon and that their futures may be in jeopardy. But young teachers are largely an unspoiled and optimistic lot and they understand that we live in a country with extraordinary freedoms and individual and collective opportunities that few others can even imagine. They know that their jobs safeguard these liberties.

Teachers also understand the pros and cons of their jobs. On the one hand, the United States remains fortunate when compared to the economic challenges of Europe and Japan. On the other hand, according to leading economists, the recession may have ended in June 2009, but that does not mean that many large cities like New York and Los Angeles are home free. Far from it. Teacher layoffs continue to hover over all our schools.

According to leading deans of education, there are many students interested in careers in elementary and secondary education and more in the sciences, mathematics and languages. There is reason for measured optimism, but the deans are quick to point out that teachers cannot be indefinitely disadvantaged when it comes to fair economic treatment.

Teacher retention is too low and it must be addressed in a measured and constructive way. Countries like China and South Korea revere teachers, seeing them as key bricks on the path to a competitive future. Can the United States of America, today the most powerful nation on the face of the earth, afford to do less? We think not.