The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
"Valuing Education" ≠ Automatic Raises, Lifetime Employment for Teachers

Class

Teachers in Tennessee will be granted fewer automatic salary increases, a move that education association head Gera Summerford says will strike at the very heart of the school system.

Teachers were originally entitled to 21 minimum pay levels (increasing from their first to their twentieth year of teaching), across five levels of education (from bachelor’s to doctorate). The new plan, approved by Tennessee lawmakers earlier this month, reduces the 21 minimum pay levels to four, and only compensates for two levels of education (bachelor’s and anything beyond that). Summerford claims this move sends the wrong message to students. She writes in The Tennessean:

When determining salary, why would the state disregard the experience and education level of the people who teach our children? In fact, how can we have strong school systems if we don’t demonstrate by our policies that we value education? I fear that this devaluation of experience and education will create constant turnover among teachers in a school. Such instability is never healthy for our students, our schools or our communities.

Apparently lifetime employment and steady raises, regardless of merit, is what Summerford thinks “valuing education” is all about.

The reality is that Tennessee public schools are failing. The state consistently ranks near the bottom in student proficiency in math and reading. Proponents of the pay scale bill claim that it will boost administrative independence across the state, allowing districts to offer merit pay and hiring bonuses for teachers in difficult-to-fill subjects like science and math.

Regardless of whether or not this claim turns out to be true, moving away from a system that offers consistently higher rewards despite poor results is a step in the right direction.

Summerford is undoubtedly sincere in her advocacy, and within her frame of reference what she is saying is obviously true. But the system she wants to defend no longer meets the needs of young people. A school system that offered steady and predictable raises to teachers as they proceeded up a secure and well marked career path was preparing students to go out and do likewise. Students were smoothly promoted from grade to grade, and given small predictable tasks to do in exchange for small and predictable awards.

That’s life in a blue model world, in which schools prepare students to work on factory floors or in large corporate bureaucracies.

But the kids in Tennessee schools today aren’t, most of them, headed for that kind of life. Those jobs are disappearing, and the institutions that once offered them are either being restructured or disassembled. The next generation of Tennessee teachers have to be flexible, entrepreneurial and used to a different kind of career structure precisely because they need to model a new and more effective style of adult life than the current blue model lockstep.

We feel for Ms Summerford and her members. Change is hard, and many people who are in the teaching field today chose it in part because it was a stable, rule-governed way to make a living. It’s frightening and frustrating to watch something you counted on begin to break up.

But change must come. Ms Summerford and her colleagues need to think more about how they can help Tennessee teachers thrive in a changing environment than about how much they hate change. It won’t be easy and not all the changes will work well, especially at first. But showing their students how adults adjust and change is one of the most important lessons teachers in Tennessee or anywhere else can teach.

We wish them well.

[Classroom image courtesy of Shutterstock]

Published on July 1, 2013 5:20 pm
  • Pete

    Teachers unions represent the interests of their members, not the students and surely never the community the purport to serve.

    When the unions act piggish — which they invariably do at contract time — they must be called out on it.

    • bpuharic

      Millions out of work. The deepest depression in 80 years…no one says we have a structural problem in American capitalism

      But it’s all unions, you see. Why?

      Well, they represent the middle class and we have to maintain the

      FICTION

      that America is a meritocracy.

      • Pete

        Unions, by their very own definition, are narrow self-interest groups. And although most union members may be middle class, in no way do unions represent the middle class. If they did, union membership would not be at an all time low.

        And indeed, it is the other way around. That is, many union members are in the middle class due not to their value to the production process but solely due to their membership in a union.

        Given this reality, it is little wonder why union fight tooth-and-nail against right to work legislation. Unions and their membership are frantic to protect their privileged positions, all the while pretending they represent the middle class.

        This is especially true of the teachers unions which by their special interest actions retard educational opportunity not just for the poor but the middle class, too.

        Tenure is one example of the pernicious effect the NEA has on the education process and academic excellence.

        • bpuharic

          Wall Street, by its very nature, is a narrow self interest group.

          The reason union membership is at all time low…and you’d know this if you worked in the private sector…is that workers are terrified of unionizing since there’s no penalty for firing organizers.

          Unions are democratic bodies, unlike Wall Street. They represent the middle class, unlike Wall Street. They build strong economies and a strong middle class, unlike Wall Street.

          It’s ironic that you put your thumb on a piece of the war against the middle class…’right to work’ legislation, THEN say that unions are unpopular, no matter how terrified working people are BECAUSE of this legislation.

          It’s no accident Germany outexports us, with its 30% unionized workforce

          And it’s no accident the American middle class hasn’t had a pay raise in THREE DECADES while the income of the 1% has tripled.

          Think those number mean a healthy middle class?

          • dwick_OR

            Your pro-union talking point example of Germany needs some updating.

            Unions represented 25% of the German workforce in 2000 (back when Germany was called the ‘sick man’ of Europe) Now after Schroeder’s 2003 labor market reforms, that number had dropped to 18% in 2011 according to the OECD – and continues to decline (the absolute number of union members has fallen by 21 percent) Yet joblessness is close to a two-decade low and employment has increased by more than 3 million – and now Germany is being held up as a model. A model built with declining union membership, mind you.

            There are a multitude of differences between the US and Germany. It starts with a failing US education system obsessed with sending each and every kid to college (whether they belong there or not and regardless how low the bar needs to be lowered) while Germany churns out technicians, engineers and skilled workers through a superb apparatus of vocational training and technical apprenticeships. Then there’s the US manufacturing focus on mass market and quantity while Germany has a set of world-class small- and medium-sized manufacturing enterprises focused on niche markets that account for a disproportionate share of Germany’s total exports. And a good number of those small niche-oriented manufacturers are private, family-owned, businesses with well less than 500 non-unionized employees.

          • bpuharic

            Yes, let’s continue with the updating shall we?

            Which country has a higher Gini coefficient? Answer? We do. So as unions decline, inequality goes up. Our middle class hasn’t had a raise in 30 years.

            Moreover, German workers are often represented on the boards of companies, and their social safety net is much broader than ours.

            Our economy is much more ‘free’ than the German economy is. Funny it hasn’t shown up in worker’s wages. And Germany, with 1/4 of our population, out exports us.

            So what’s in it for the American worker to divest themselves of unions?

            Higher unemployment? Lower salaries? Less job security?

            Yes to all of the above.

          • Tom

            Germany is also currently stuck bailing out all of Europe, America is only right next to Canada, which is a tiny export market, and Mexico, also tiny, and has a smaller number of poor immigrants compared to us.

          • SouthOhioGipper

            Inequality is rising because a computer doesn’t have to be paid.

            If I replace an unnecessary worker with a computer, you expect me to distribute the savings to my employees as pay raises and increased benefits?

            Why should I?

  • wrecktafire

    “Change is hard, and many people who are in the teaching field today
    chose it in part because it was a stable, rule-governed way to make a
    living. It’s frightening and frustrating to watch something you counted
    on begin to break up.”

    What is frustrating about the education debate is the unwillingness of some (emphasize _some_) in the discussion to see the poor results of the existing public schools for what they are: a call to revisit old assumptions about what education is, and where the responsibilities for educating our children lie.

    Too many of these union leaders gamely try to shoulder the whole load, and in an unrelated, tragic error, describe the problem as a essentially a resource problem.

    I think Mead is definitely on the right track when he points to the disappearance of large chunks of the low-skill economy as a critical factor, here. Tomorrow’s students will inhabit a different world–one in which the rewards will increasingly go to the flexible and inventive, and not so much to the merely industrious.

    For the teachers to ignore this trend is to serve their charges ill.

  • Boritz

    ***… moving away from a system that offers consistently higher rewards despite poor results is a step in the right direction.***
    Teacher’s unions and Republican Consultants (friends of Karl Rove) will fight this with their last wheezing, dying breath.