The case against $320k kindergarten teachers 

Last week, this article in the New York Times added to the mountain of research and writing about teacher quality with an article enticingly titled, “The Case for $320,000 Kindergarten Teachers.” Now, as much as I might like to argue that, I too deserve to be paid $320,000 a year for my very important work as an English teacher, this is so far from the reality of what teachers scrape in. I can’t even fathom making any kind of argument for that kind of pay.

Yet it is disturbingly obvious that a great teacher is the difference in a great education. Every study commissioned reports this inevitable reality. A talented teacher produces exceptional student outcomes. As we all head back to school in the coming days with our children receiving their class assignments, every parent is on pins and needles waiting to receive the news that their child has been assigned to the best class with the most talented teacher.

What most folks don’t realize about the best teachers is that they don’t do it for the pay. Think back over the course of your education. You know who your best teachers were. The best teachers innately feel an obligation to cram as much knowledge as possible into each of their students. Great teachers have some sort of intangible magic that inspires and excites. I have never met a teacher that said, “I would be SUCH a better teacher if they only paid me more.” I can’t imagine my junior high school science teacher, Mary Agnes Smith, demanding $320,000 from our principal or school board for her compensation. Yet, she was pivotal in my success as a student and future educator. This humble woman from the hills of North Carolina sank her teeth into every child that graced the doors of her classroom with a vigor and intensity unlike any edu-crat I know. Mrs. Smith demanded that we learn cell biology with daily quizzes.  She walked a raised platform at the front of the class with constant, snappy questioning keeping us all on task and fully engaged dissecting frogs, testing litmus squares, sketching amoeba anatomy.  

Now this was in the ‘80s, in a public junior high school in central Florida with probably half of the student body on free or reduced lunch, a large numbers of Vietnamese refugees, and a growing underclass of working class blacks and whites that had no other choice when it came to educating their children. Mrs. Smith wasn’t the only remarkable teacher.  Mrs. Jarvis for English, Mr. Connelly for social studies, Ms. Kirkland for math-- I had a stable of talented teachers guiding me through a very rough junior high school.

They are all retired now. Living on a basic pension from the government. They are far from rich. None of them ever expected to make $100,000 a year. They loved teaching. They loved us. And I would stand by the judgment that they are among the most talented, committed, outstanding teachers in this country. They changed the direction of many lives. For the better, always. And we as a society, an educational system, do nothing to reward these teachers. We do nothing to incentivize them, yet still many great teachers choose this career because they care.

The teachers in it for the money?

Actually, those are the teachers fast-tracking to administrative positions where they don’t face the daily pressure of teaching 150 apathetic teenagers more interested in texting, ‘sexting’, sleeping, or smoking, the subtleties of Shakespeare or the significance of right triangles. And this is how we have ended up spending more money per student than almost any other industrialized nation, with the among the poorest results. The best teachers don’t set the standard for the education system, because they are busy slogging away in the classroom while the ‘expert’ administrators tell them how to do their job. The best teachers don’t receive bonuses for excellent student performance or outcomes. The best teachers now can expect to fired or furloughed if they are among the most recently hired no matter how exceptional they might be.  

In fact, some of the finest teachers I know, just signed contracts for pay lower than their salaries the first year they taught. One has been the chair of the ESL department at her school for two years, an urban high school with a high percentage of ELL students, has been teaching five years, paid for her own TESOL certification, coaches the school tennis team, and receives no extra pay for any of this.

This teacher has worked with me for two summers, one unpaid, and one receiving a very small stipend, teaching newly arrived refugee students English reading, writing and speaking skills for five hours a day during her vacation. This teacher received furlough days last year, a contract this year for less than she made as a new teacher in a district that is spending $4.18 million with two employment firms to hire 67 teachers from abroad, previously headed by a superintendent who is currently under indictment for RICO charges.  

One of her students commented this week, “She is the best teacher I have had who taught me how to write an entire sentence in English.” Coming from an Iraqi, Afghan, or Congolese student only six months in the United States, that means a heck of a lot when most American high school graduates have a difficult time with this task.  And so when she was offered her contract this year, it came with nothing except a huge pay cut.

Then we face the reality that we can’t even get rid of the worst teachers.

Ask Michelle Rhee how easy it has been to fire 241 teachers in Washington D.C. These teachers represent approximately 6% of the D.C. district teaching force. How reasonable is it to believe that 6% of teachers in one of the lowest performing districts in the nation are not really up to the job? Yet unions, Democrats, and progressive education policy pundits refuse to overhaul a merit system that still rewards longevity over quality and excellence.  

Until the education system can hire and fire based on skill, talent, and performance, we will never succeed in saving education. Forget about $320,000 salaries for any teachers. I don’t really think that is the kind of teacher I want for my child anyway.  I want a teacher devoted to children, devoted to teaching and learning, devoted to producing responsible, thoughtful, caring students. I only hope there are still a few Mrs. Smiths still out there in the public education system waiting for my sons to land in their classes. 

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