Most people would agree that a young person’s success in school tilts the odds in favor of success in life. Most people would agree that students are more likely to succeed when they’re guided by skillful teachers. So how to explain the stark reality that public school teachers, in North Carolina more so than in many other states, as a group have been treated with such disdain?
Their salary levels are nothing less than insulting for such demanding, consequential work. They are badgered by second-guessers who seek to hold them accountable for outcomes over which they may have little control.
Disdain fuels the NC General Assembly’s moves to cancel out the modest pay boost that’s gone to teachers who earn advanced degrees and to deprive them of the security of career status once they’ve shown themselves capable in the classroom. Instead, teachers will be put on contracts, year to year for many and longer only for those who top their colleagues in what amount to dog-eat-dog employment contests. Imagine what that’s likely to do for collegiality and team spirit in the teaching ranks.
Teachers across the state have been speaking out against what looks to be a systematic effort to degrade them as professionals and to make their crucial classroom responsibilities even harder to meet.
They were a strong presence at the spring and summer Moral Monday demonstrations objecting to a range of misguided decisions by the conservatives who rule the legislature and call the tune for Gov. Pat McCrory. On Monday, Nov. 4, they staged “walk-ins” at many schools to highlight what’s at stake.
McCrory, who approved a state budget sent to him by fellow Republicans despite its targeting of teachers and under-investment in education generally, conceded after the Nov. 4 events that teachers had “legitimate gripes” that would be probed by his newly established teacher advisory council. Perhaps McCrory remembered that he had earned his own undergraduate degree, from Catawba College, as an education major and reflected on why he had opted for, yes, a less-demanding but more lucrative career path.
Governor now gets it?
If the scales are falling from the governor’s eyes when it comes to the validity of teachers’ complaints about pay and working conditions, then good. He can be a strong voice for progress, just as all of his immediate predecessors have been, regardless of party.
But the teachers who turned out for their before- and after-school walk-ins – rejecting suggestions by some that they instead walk out during school hours to dramatize their cause – are far more than griping workplace whiners who just need a little placating so they’ll shut up and keep their noses to their grindstones.
These teachers are perhaps the most credible of all advocates for strong public support for the whole public school enterprise – support in the form of ample budgets, enlightened personnel policies, sound instructional practices and equal opportunity for all students. They’re the ones who believe so strongly in the schools’ mission that they’ve tied their own hopes for professional and personal fulfillment to that mission’s success.
They’re the ones who have answered the call – the call for people so dedicated to helping kids find their own successful paths that they’ll endure meager pay, interminable hours, the condescension of those who think that anyone choosing to teach despite the drawbacks and frustrations must be a sap who deserves what he or she gets.
McCrory’s advisers surely will not lack for specific concerns related to how the state’s teacher workforce is treated. They have plenty of evidence that an accumulation of grievances is leading to a crisis in recruitment and retention – doubly worrisome in that experienced teachers tend to be the most effective.
But to make headway on the big issues, McCrory will need to reckon with a Republican-controlled legislature that tends to view teachers as political antagonists focused mainly on making their own lives easier. That’s an unfair and belittling assessment of professionals who are bold enough to tell powerful officials things they’d rather not hear.
School budget shrinkage
With legislators this year focused on tax cuts, education spending was constricted at all levels. The public schools ended up with about 1.5 percent less than what they would have needed to keep up with enrollment growth and rising costs. That’s not a huge decrease, but it followed on the heels of several years of budget belt-tightening amid the recession. And entwined with the spending plan were policy choices that can’t help but make it harder for students to learn: for example, a 20 percent cutback in the number of early-grade teacher assistants, larger class sizes, less money for textbooks and supplies.
A new report from the N.C. Justice Center (“Smart Money: Investing in Student Achievement”) puts the current K-12 budget into a longer-term perspective. Per-pupil state spending, according to the report, has dropped by 11 percent since fiscal year 2007-08, from $5,864 to $5,211, when adjusted for inflation. Ramped-up investment in preceding years has paid off with improvements in student performance, the center says, but cutbacks are putting those gains in jeopardy.
The report zeroes in on a key linkage: “Teacher quality is the single largest determinant of how well students learn. … Accordingly, hiring and retaining excellent teachers is an essential component of any education policy designed to improve student achievement.” It notes the disincentives posed by lagging pay, onerous working conditions and low professional status. Indeed, how can North Carolina hope to convince more bright young college graduates to become teachers when it’s content to let its average teacher compensation slide to 46th in the country?
The NC Council of Churches is in sync with the Justice Center in its advocacy of policies intended to give a fair shake to the disadvantaged. The Council’s own support for a strong, well-funded public education system is rooted in its vision of schools as places where even kids from poor surroundings can lift themselves toward happy and rewarding lives, if given the opportunities all children deserve.
Teachers are the noble facilitators of this uplift. What they deserve from the rest of us is support, encouragement and trust – manifested by our elected leaders in the budgets and policies they craft.