News came out today that President Obama is announcing a new plan to spend $100 million on training 100,000 new teachers over the next decade. Responding to a call from American businesses to provide more high-skilled workers, Obama’s plan will focus on training more STEM teachers — aka those teaching science, technology, engineering, and math.
Spending more money on education is a healthy priority, but is this the right tactic? The plan seems to presuppose that there is a dearth of teachers right now. Yet the opposite is true — we’ve been laying them off in droves in response to tight state and local budgets. So there is a whole pool of people that we could put back to work doing what they already want to do. The number of jobs in “local government education” — in other words, elementary school teachers — has been falling steadily since February 2008, according to the BLS. We’ve lost 217,900 of those jobs since then, and things aren’t getting much better, even with seemingly good signs in the latest jobs report. Those education jobs were down 9.6 percent since December.
So rather than enticing and training a new army of teachers, perhaps we could start by putting the ones we’ve already got back to work. It would likely be a lighter lift to retrain them. And it would help ease the ongoing womancession.
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But this plan also misses a larger problem: that we lose teaching talent because we don’t value the profession enough. If you’re educated in STEM, which some report pays 87 percent higher than the average private sector job, why would you go into teaching, an under-paid and under-appreciated field?
This is a serious problem for our education system. A report from McGraw-Hill lays out some recommendations on how the U.S. can take on the fact that its butt is being kicked on global test scores. The numbers are pretty embarrassing: on average, American students came in 15th in reading, 19th in science, and 27th in math. So what was the report’s number one recommendation for changing those figures? Raise the status of the teaching profession. The report notes that the countries with the top scores are also those that typically pay teachers better. In fact, our high school teachers work longer than other countries, yet we spend less on teacher salaries than the average OECD country. This is a big reason that nearly 50 percent of new teachers leave the profession within the first five years, according to a 2005 NEA report. Their reasons for leaving were poor pay and poor working conditions.
I applaud the idea of spending $100 million on education, particularly in a “recovery” period still taking a heavy toll on those working in that sector. But there may be much better uses for the money, and in all reality we need a much larger sum to make real change in our education system. We do need to recruit more people to the teaching profession. If we help people stay in those jobs by firstly employing them and then paying them what they deserve, we may take care of the problem.