It wasn’t always this way. Up through the 1970s, the quality of the teacher corps in the United States was, in effect, subsidized by discrimination. Women and minorities didn’t have as many opportunities outside the classroom. It’s wonderful for society that this has changed. But as other avenues for those who used to become teachers opened up dramatically, salaries for teachers have failed to keep pace. As union leaders have told me, this has proved a double whammy when it comes to getting great young people to choose teaching as a career.
This is a hard but essential conversation for the nation. How do we talk about upgrading the caliber of people who choose teaching as a career without disrespecting and demoralizing the current corps — a corps that includes hundreds of thousands of excellent teachers working their hearts out for our kids under trying conditions? Yet it’s these teachers who have told me with passion how mediocre too many of their colleagues are.
A senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the host of the new podcast “This...Is Interesting,” Miller writes a weekly column for The Post.
We’ll need to hire millions of new teachers in the next decade or two as the boomers retire. This is an enormous opportunity. If we adopted the strategic approach to talent that top-performing countries follow, does anyone doubt we’d make serious progress — and that our unions would end up with a different focus? (While I have much to learn about how teachers unions function in these high-performing countries, my early reporting suggests they are real partners in ensuring teacher quality and meaningful professional development. That’s where they spend their time and energy — not fighting to keep bad eggs on the payroll.)
All this helps explain why the answer to our education emergency is to think much bigger about teaching. What about starting salaries of $65,000 rising to $150,000 for teachers (and more for principals)? And federally funded “West Points” of teaching and principal training to model for the nation how it can be done? And new federal cash for poor districts now doomed by our 19th-century system of local school finance, so they can compete in regional labor markets for the talent that today gravitates to higher-paying suburbs? And shrinking today’s 15,000 unwieldy, archaic local school districts (where we’re also an international outlier) to, say, a more manageable 60 — one in each state plus 10 big urban districts, as former IBM CEO Louis Gerstner has suggested?
This is the beginning of what a bold agenda would sound like — not the fight over Washington, D.C.’s vouchers that Mitt Romney is picking, along with lip service about teaching without any policies or resources to raise the profession’s status.
To be sure, President Obama has fallen short in the boldness department as well. The question is whether anything can force the campaigns to move past symbols, blather and fingerpointing to ideas that might stand a chance of actually improving our schools.
Matt Miller, a co-host of public radio’s “Left, Right & Center,” writes a weekly online column for The Post. His e-mail address is email@example.com.