During a speech for New York State United Teachers last month, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton did more than offer a few vague platitudes about the selflessness of teachers. She vowed to launch a “national campaign” to improve the teaching profession.
“One of my main goals as president will be to launch a national campaign to modernize and elevate the profession of teaching. To reach out to encourage more talented young people to become teachers. To reach out and encourage more talented mid-career professionals to do the same,” Clinton said.
So far, Clinton’s statements on education have been fairly limited, in part thanks to the very few education-specific questions she has been asked during the Democratic debates. We do know that she has been supportive of Common Core state standards, saying they allow states to “organize your entire school system,” though she also advocates for “better and fewer tests,” called New York’s rollout of the standards “disastrous,” and said those tests shouldn’t be tied to New York teacher evaluations, according to an interview with Newsday. When it comes to early childhood education, Clinton has introduced a universal pre-K plan.
But her interest in bolstering the teaching profession by urging that states work on increasing teacher pay, improving recruitment, and provide more funding for public schools is the part of her education platform that represents a bigger change in how Democrats talk about teachers.
How we talk about teachers — and how it’s changing
Some of Clinton’s critics on the both the right and left have argued that the American Federation of Teachers endorsed her too early in the presidential campaign and it’s important to remember that not all teachers support Clinton.
But it’s important to recognize that, up until recently, Republicans and Democrats were taking a similar tone when talking about teachers. Instead of advocating for placing more trust in teachers, giving them more autonomy, paying them better salaries, and minimizing the extent to which test scores are tied to teacher evaluations, politicians were focused on holding teachers “accountable” — and that conversation rarely acknowledged the few resources teachers were provided in struggling public schools.
In the past few years, both Democratic and Republican politicians have been engaged in heated battles with teachers unions over issues like tying teacher evaluations to test scores.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D), wanted standardized testing to make up 40 percent of the rubric for teacher evaluations, which was one of the motivators for the 2012 Chicago teachers strike. His relationship with teachers unions has not improved over time.
In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has had an extremely difficult relationship with teachers unions during his time in office, and stated during his 2015 State of the State address that he would withhold a chunk of education funding if lawmakers did not agree to increase the percentage of teacher evaluations tied to test scores.
The White House, too, inflamed teachers unions at times. In the early years of the Obama administration, officials pushed teacher accountability through measures of academic improvement. The administration angered teachers unions when it chose the D.C. public school system’s evaluation process as a model for the nation as it spread information its competitive grant, Race for the Top. The American Federation of Teachers fiercely opposed D.C.’s approach. Michelle Rhee, then chancellor of DCPS, was a controversial figure in education reform.
“The centerpiece of Race to the Top is meaningful teacher evaluations developed with teacher input and focused on student learning… Logically, then, Washington, D.C.’s application, which includes an evaluation system developed and implemented solely by the chancellor, without regard to considerable criticism this year from frontline educators, should have ranked among the lowest,” Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT, stated in 2010. “By naming D.C. a finalist, the Education Department is sending a message that is completely opposite to its earlier calls for states to engage all community members, including teachers, in the effort to improve schools.”
Now, there are signs the landscape is shifting. Cuomo has made efforts to rebuild his relationships with teachers unions, saying that the state needs to reduce the role of testing in teacher evaluations. And the Obama administration has shifted its approach toward testing and recently downplayed the importance of test scores for measuring teacher performance.
Ultimately, Clinton’s unadulterated support of teachers unions and improving teaching conditions show just how rapidly the rhetoric is changing on the Democratic side, both in speeches directed at teachers and in the wider public discourse.
On the Republican side, meanwhile, presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump has said he will slash funding for the Department of Education. And many of the candidates who ran against him (but have since left the race) retained an outright combative attitude toward teachers. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie once said teachers unions deserve “a punch in the face,” and Ohio Gov. John Kasich said if he were “king,” teachers lounges would be abolished.
The economic conditions plaguing teachers
Nationally, school funding has stagnated. At the height of efforts to battle teacher unions in Wisconsin and New York, schools were still receiving very little funding and many of the schools in urban areas were highly segregated by race and income (and still are). In 14 states, per student spending remains 10 percent or more lower than in 2008 — and although state revenues grew 8.9 percent in the year-long period ending in March of 2013, those revenues stayed almost 3 percent lower than before the recession, according to a 2014 report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Now, there are major budget crises in Chicago, Detroit, and Los Angeles’ school systems, and rural school districts are struggling to provide resources to their students as well. Lawsuits against states and school districts for providing limited resources to students aren’t going away anytime soon.
“We can’t just turn around and tell you to do better, we need to do better.”
In her recent speech, Clinton recognized what teachers consider an unfair expectation — that they will overcome these resource issues through sheer dogged determination.
“And we ask you to help make right everything from poverty and homelessness, to child health disparities, to the legacy of racial inequities stretching back centuries. These are major, complicated issues — and they should not be dumped on all you, yours alone to bear,” she said. “More kids are facing really difficult situations at home — they’re coming to school hungry, or after spending a night in a homeless shelter. They have the weight of the world on their little shoulders. And we need to do better. We can’t just turn around and tell you to do better. We need to do better.”
After many years of Democratic governors and lawmakers discussing teacher quality without also factoring in economic inequality, systemic racism, and the problems with mostly funding a school system through the property taxes of the neighborhood where it’s located, Clinton’s acknowledgement that a decent quality of education isn’t teachers’ responsibility alone is likely refreshing to many teachers.
The importance of paying teachers more
The image of the selfless female teacher — which harbors some stereotypes about women being natural nurturers who only need the smiles of children as payment — doesn’t make it easy for teachers, 76 percent of whom are women, to ask for better pay without being perceived as selfish.
When teachers in Detroit called in sick to protest the fact that they may not receive any pay after June 30, for instance, they were called out as “egotistical.” But teachers are still people who need to be paid and feed their families, a sentiment echoed by Clinton’s remarks.
“So if we believe, as I do — and then we give lip service to — that teachers are professionals and that you do something valuable, we should pay you like we really believe it…. too many teachers are taking second or even third jobs just to get by and support their families. It shouldn’t be that hard to make it as a teacher,” Clinton said.
“… too many teachers are taking second or even third jobs”
Teachers populate the lists of lowest paid majors. A Georgetown University report released last year from the Center on Education and the Workforce showed that the 10 majors with the lowest median earnings included childhood education, at $39,000; studio arts; social work; teacher education and visual and performing arts at $42,000 median salary; theology and religious vocations; and elementary education at $43,000.
To make matters worse, despite the fact that teaching requires a college degree, teachers are paid very little in comparison to other professions that require a college education. Teacher salaries in general are 40 percent lower (at $36,141) than other professions that require college degrees, according to a 2011 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development paper. In many states across the country, teacher pay has either stagnated or has declined over the past decade, The Teacher Salary Project found.
Public support for teacher pay raises depends largely on how you ask the question. According to a 2015 EducationNext poll, when asked whether teacher salaries should be higher, 63 percent of respondents said yes — but 45 percent of respondents said yes when asked if taxes should be raised to pay for salary increases.
The conversation on how to make the teaching profession more respected — and some would say more elite — has recently been reinvigorated thanks to initiatives from the federal government and Washington, D.C. think tanks. The U.S. Department of Education’s 2017 budget provides a grant competition for teachers who work at high-needs school in an effort to encourage talented teachers to work at high-needs schools. The Center for American Progress also launched the TeachStrong campaign last fall to build coalitions to discuss how to make the teaching profession more prestigious as well as provide support systems for teachers.