Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Teaching Profession Needs A Major PR Makeover

Teaching kills for a host of reasons. Lots of teachers won't tell you otherwise. Lest I get branded a 'Serial Whiner' (With no apologies to former McCain advisor Phil Gramm: "Whiner" like the teaching colleague whose idea of staff meeting participation is ridiculing everything while managing to grade papers, and purposely leave facial dandruff droppings in the meeting room 'cuz he hates the custodial staff slightly more than either himself or his eighth grade algebra students), here's what I think would mark the beginning of a major PR boost:

1) Provide the following financial incentives for classroom teachers:
  • Eliminate State and Federal Income Tax for all K-12 public school classroom teachers

  • Forgive student loans completely for folks teaching grades 6-12. Lots of states already do so for teachers working in critical shortage areas or subjects. Given the sorry state of our secondary schools, the case for expanding "critical" is easily supported.

  • Increase starting salaries for classroom teachers. More so for those teaching grades 6-12: 70K for urban school districts, 50K+ for rural (or, at least 10% than what the rural cops are making). Use a combination of federal and private sector funds to pay for this (after all, 'they're' the ones already paying steeply in the form of overpopulated prisons, and a shitty workforce). Michelle Rhee (DC Superintendent of Schools) has the right idea in a strongly modified version of merit pay (i.e., substantial, conditional raises, performance-based [not necessarily test score increases]).

    • Here in California, the state is required to spend 40% of its entire budget on public education. Well over 85% of that goes toward salaries and benefits. Far too often, district-level administrators are grossly overpaid. End this imbalance or force administrators back in to the classroom they so diligently avoid. You think CEO salaries are out of line in corporate America? Sheeee-it, you oughtta take a peek at public schooling (see NY Times' 'Week in Review" ad section every Sunday)! Throw money where it counts.
    • Provide additional financial incentives for those returning to the schools they themselves attended.

2) Get more eyeballs and bodies involved in the makeover discussion by considering conscription.

Charles Moskos took so much heat for advocating a military draft as late as 2003, but the man had a point: there's nothing like personal stake-holding to stoke debate, consciousness raising, and personnel shortages. With a snotty nod to our Presidential candidates, I say we fund either conscription or the entire PR makeover by buying 3 fewer B-1 bombers, shutting down Guantanamo, and sucking funds directly from the nascent Bush Presidential Library. We don't need a bigger war machine, and we all know Dubya don't like to read nothin. Young people between the ages of 18-27 would be required to serve our country for two years. You can enter the classroom, the military, the Peace Corps, the National Parks Service, or any agency providing services to our most vulnerable populations (the elderly, indigent, or young).

  • If you agree to teach, or work in a public school (min. requirement for classroom teaching would be a Bachelor's degree, those without a 4 year degree would be assigned to support positions), up to 2 years' worth of your college loans would be repaid.
  • If you decide to stay in the profession after your term of service, you'd become eligible for a combination of continuing education (e.g., NYC Teaching Fellows program), and complete student loan forgiveness.

3) Find the Education Messiah. Fast. Get his or her ass all over the airwaves.The environment now has Al Gore. Kabbalah has Madonna. Personal computing has Steve Jobs. Our Fantastic Four (Bill and Melinda Gates, Richard Barth and Wendy Kopp) are too busy actually getting stuff done. Qualifications: name-recognition, positive telegenics, a substantial amount of wit and a profound sense of the power of teachers. A cursory scroll of pretenders may help reveal the magnitude of our need:

William Bennett (Are compulsive gambling and chain smoking among your espoused virtues these days?), Diane Ravitch (too, too), Rod Paige ('nuff said), Randi Weingarten (lamentable overbite, too busy being Al Shanker), Margaret Spellings (see Rod Paige), Jaime Escalante (He stood, delivered, and resigned due to collegue jealousy issues), Edward James Olmos (alas, he's loco in real life), the guy who wrote "Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire" (too busy kicking ass in the classroom), and Queen Latifa (she had the best of NBC's "so now you know" , school-specific public service announcements).

Nominations anyone?

Lemme know, and I'll make the phone call. I'm serious.

The profession needs a serious public relations makeover. We need the best and brightest. Even the vaunted Teach for America can barely make a difference. Here are some of the reasons why:

  • The public and our government says our high schools and middle schools tend to suck

  • Drop out rates remain alarmingly high. California's are indicative of the nation's.

  • Our teachers tend to leave the profession soon after entering

  • Studies perennially indicate high levels of teacher dissatisfaction with school-workplace environment

  • We can neither recruit nor retain secondary math and science teachers to satisfy demand

  • Our secondary school classrooms are dangerously overcrowded

  • Research and attendant dollars tend to focus on pre-K and/or elementary schools ("first five")

  • Our high school teachers are scrutinized more than Presidential candidates, getting much more blame than praise
  • More often than not, "teaching to the test" and "teacher-proof" pacing guidelines replace secondary school teachers' autonomy
  • Most sane people would rather not spend the majority of their day teaching, much less being in the presence of adolescents.

Yammer all you want about education reform. Yammer all the way to the Third World and back. It all starts in the classroom. For far too many kids, that's where it ends as well.

Eliot Suarez

No comments: