Your Turn: U.S. teachers deserve better treatment

Lawrence Journal-World opinion section

May 3 is National Teacher Appreciation Day. Unfortunately, this nation too often neglects to thank those who do important and seemingly impossible work. The more than 3.5 million K-12 teachers fall into this category. We owe them big time. So let’s send them our apologies and our thanks.

While we’re at it, we should think about the best way to show our gratitude. Arguably, the greatest gift would be to treat them better in the future than we have in the past.

In the name of this new beginning, we need to admit to past transgressions toward teachers.  Here are a few.  

• We cut their budgets. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 31 states had lower per pupil expenditures in 2014 than they did in 2008. 

• We don’t pay them enough. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, salaries of American teachers rank 17th of 26 countries.

• We have too little respect for them. According to the Varkey Foundation, America ranks ninth of 21 countries in respect for teachers. 

• We regularly change the rules of their game. According to the Gates Foundation, “constantly changing demands” are the most significant challenges teachers believe they face.  

It’s a mystery why we treat teachers so shabbily.  

It’s not because we don’t value them. We understand that our economy and democracy depend on a good education. It’s not because they don’t have an impact on students. We know that a teacher has two to three times the impact of any other school factor. It’s not because we don’t think they do a good job. Polls report that 64 percent of the public have trust and confidence in teachers. 

Nor is teacher disenfranchisement a new topic. It’s been the subject of discussions for a long time. But effective solutions have been elusive. Teacher satisfaction rates declined from 62 percent in 2008 to 39 percent in 2012; 40 to 50 percent quit the profession within five years; and enrollment in teacher preparation programs dropped by 10 percent from 2004 to 2012

One of the few benefits of this distasteful presidential season is that it creates a visible forum for important public policy issues. The fate of teachers needs to be part of these debates. Here are four principles that should undergird the discussions.  

• Teachers need a consistent and strong voice in the running of their schools, their professional development and school reform.

• Teachers need stable employment and career paths with salaries that attract and retain the best students.

• Teachers need support in the classroom with materials and personnel (e.g., assistants and mentors).

• Teachers cannot be held accountable for the failings of the larger society such as poverty and violence.  

As a nation we owe our teachers an apology for ignoring them and our thanks for the job they do. But these are not enough. Unless we change our attitudes and our actions, their fate, and the nation’s, will continue to be in jeopardy.

— Gene A. Budig is past president of three major state universities, including Kansas University, and of Major League Baseball’s American League. Alan Heaps is a former vice president of the College Board.