Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Back in My Time: Thoughts on education and dedication on the day after Labor Day

Warning:  This is an old guy’s tale of “back in my time.”  But I think it’s worth telling and maybe even worth reading because I may have a different take on the issue involved than other back-in-my-time stories I’ve heard other old guys tell.  As a new school year begins, I’ve been thinking.


My wife and I began our married life with a zero-based budget.  Unlike the traditional zero-based budget that’s used to manage businesses, ours was zero-based because we had no money.  No doweries, checks that people gave us at our wedding, prior savings as we prepared for marriage.  Zero.  Every month when we first started, we could spend to the limit of what we earned.  It took us a few weeks to move out of the cheap motel where we started and into an apartment.  After that, we scraped together $100 to buy our first car that didn’t run very well or often.  If we spent everything, we started at zero the next month.  You can argue that we should’ve saved and waited to have the resources to begin married life.  But that’s not the way we did it.  I worked in a warehouse and then an office for our first five years of marriage, and we always had food, shelter, clothing, and a few extra dollars – what we needed.  After five years of marriage and living a working life, and after much discussion, I decided to become a teacher, left my job, and became a full-time college student. 


We moved to the area where the college was and started over, both getting full-time jobs while I also attended classes full time.  During the last couple of years, I worked 40+ hours a week and weekends as a maintenance mechanic at a local newspaper.  That job helped ensure that I left college with no debt since I was paid enough to live and to pay for tuition.  I was committed to becoming a teacher, so the work was what I needed to do.  However, I graduated in the late 1970s, when there weren’t any openings in education.  And to add to that, I majored in English – a field where there really weren’t going to be any openings.  The joke at the time was that you could find English majors on any street corner with a sign that said, “Will Teach for Food.”  Still, I was young (or at least “youngish” since I graduated at age 27).  And I had youthful faith in my ability to succeed.  When I graduated from college, a private school offered a job teaching high school, and I took it. 


In that first teaching job, I took a 50% cut in pay from my job at the newspaper.  Teaching at a private school paid pretty low wages, but I was teaching.  I was dedicated to making a career as a teacher, so I figured I could work summers and maybe weekends to make enough money to survive.  During my first and second summers of teaching, I worked on the maintenance crew for the school where I taught (they even loaned me a pickup truck to drive), and I drove tour buses on weekends and evenings during the school year.  I was used to working long hours from having worked full time in college while enrolled in full-time courses.  It just made sense that I’d sacrifice early in my career with the hopes that I’d make enough later to get ahead.  Besides, my wife was working as a secretary, and she made twice what I was making; so we had enough to live. 


After a year at the private school, I found a job teaching junior high at a public school, and my salary doubled.  We weren’t going to get rich from the increase, but the salary and my wife’s salary as an administrative assistant allowed us, at that point 10 years into our marriage, to buy a condo and start living a middle-class life.  It would’ve been financially challenging if we had kids, but we didn’t, and it all worked.  Our lives weren’t extravagant, but I wasn’t pressured to find summer or evening employment and could pursue a master’s degree during summers.  As had been the case for my bachelor’s degree, I paid for the costs of the degree as I went along.  I also finished that degree with no debt while we traded upward from our condo and eventually lived in a split-level house in the suburbs.  The story sounds very American-success-story, doesn’t it?  I worked hard, started with nothing, and reached my goals, doing the work I chose to do and being rewarded for effort and dedication. 


Except I don’t quite see things that way, especially as that mythical American dream might apply to teachers starting today.  I could work full time while completing a bachelor’s degree because of the kindness of an employer who let me work my hours around a college schedule.  I had the support of a spouse who took a job as a custodian one year cleaning women’s dorms for spoiled young women at the college where I completed my BA.  Her job paid for a half-year’s free tuition for me, a spousal benefit that came with the job.  And the cost of tuition at a small, private college then was $2,000 a year.  While that tuition was relatively expensive in the mid-1970s, it was nowhere near comparable to the exorbitant costs that today’s students pay. 


My tuition was less than 10% of my wife’s and my combined, full-time salaries when I was in college.  For a student today to earn similarly while in college, that student would need an income of at least $110,000 for even in-state tuition at a state school in my state.  If students attempted to attend a private college and pay for it, like I did, earning a salary where tuition was 10% of their income today, they would need to earn in excess of $300k annually.  Yes, I worked hard and got where I wanted to get.  The sacrifices I made paid off.  I had a rewarding and fulfilling career in education, eventually working in higher education, earning a doctorate, and having the most privileged job on the planet as a university professor.  But what I did is impossible for current educators who begin with nothing as I did. 


Those teachers begin their careers saddled with crushing debt while being paid well below market rates in comparison to similarly educated professionals.  We ask educators, as the society asked me, to substitute their dedication for adequate compensation.  And many do begin with that sense of dedication and belief that their dedication will be enough to overcome the economic disadvantage their profession creates for them.  However, many quickly discover that their beliefs are not enough when they’re working two jobs to make rent and student loan payments while paying for life’s expenses.  Unlike me, they can’t look forward to a time when that will change and they will become more economically privileged.  Even an English major like me can do the math.  The numbers are against them as they get priced out of housing and as they find that rising costs don’t match their often-stagnant salaries.  Rather than eventually finding economic stability, today’s educators become further estranged from it each year they remain in the profession.  Beginning teachers, especially, have more limited options than I did.  Typically, they can be a relationship with someone else who earns a living wage, resign themselves to living with roommates, move into higher paying administrative work, or leave education to work where they are adequately compensated. 


We’ve always expected that new educators trade dedication for monetary reward.  That goes back to the earliest days of hiring teachers in the 1800s, when they were expected to stay in boarding rooms that their community provided.  What’s different, now, is that educators don’t have a pathway eventually to achieve economic stability.  Look in any housing market and see what the median teacher’s salary qualifies teachers to rent or purchase.  Look at teachers’ salaries and see how they have remained flat against the cost of living.  Look at the enormous debts with which teachers leave college.  Look and you’ll find that the opportunities I had two generations ago don’t exist for new educators. 


In an era when many equivalent professionals leave college earning $70k and more, the solution for this issue is simple.  States need to ensure that educators earn a living wage from the first day they are hired, just like employers in the private sector do.  Instead, the data suggest that the gap between teacher and comparable professions has gotten worse since “back in my time.”  There also need to be pathways for earning advancement that matches the earnings that educators need for their advancing lives.  I’m not suggesting a movement toward “market forces” and reward structures that “incentivize” the education profession.  These ideas don’t work in any social service employment because they always end up rewarding the most measurable and least important traits, skills, and activities.  If you put incentives, for example, on student testing results, you’ll ensure that educators focus on those tests; and educators who work in districts where testing skews against students will be disadvantaged.  Instead, it makes more sense for educators to have a salary structure that recognizes their growth and contributions to the profession.  For example, the stipends that teachers receive for extracurricular work (coaching, activities advising, etc.) are always pitiful reminders of the worth that educational institutions place on this work.  What would happen if educators were compensated for those activities on a pay scale that was comparable to professional wages for anyone else who’s required to have five or more years of education? 


By the way, if you think that a $70k starting wage seems awfully high, you may need to come to your own “back in my time” awareness.  The National Association of Colleges and Employers 2021 Summer Salary Survey of 77,180 bachelor’s degree graduates who completed their degrees in 2020 shows that the average salary for a bachelor’s-level graduate was $55,260, with many earning well above $70k.  According to data from the National Education Association, only the District of Columbia, where the average teacher’s starting salary is $56,313, pays above the overall national average salary for college graduates.  Twenty-three of the states start their teachers at below $40k annually.  If you started your work life in the 1970s, $35k was a lot of money.  Today, it isn’t.  In most regions, a $35k annual salary would mean you’re spending half or more of your take-home salary for housing costs or for daycare.  


Instead of coming up with schemes which ensure that educators have limited choices, how about, as their employers, we start investing in their futures like any good employer would?  I always find it interesting that some people who are angry with someone in public employment will resort to telling that person, “I pay your salary.”  When it comes time to discussing and committing to fair compensation for public employees, those ersatz bosses are nowhere to be found.  Instead of seeing how cheaply we can fund education, let’s do what any good business would do and see what the true costs to offer a living wage are and then raise the funds that will allow schools to attract and retain professionals.  We’ve believed the prevarications of certain people with agendas who tell us that public service, and education specifically, is filled with bloated and wasteful systems that are ineffective and inefficient.  I’d reply with what seems to be former Attorney General Bill Barr’s adjective of choice, but, instead, I’ll respond with a milder version:  Hogwash! 


Go into any school and look into its budget.  Then, after you’ve done your analysis, tell me where the waste is.  Let’s stop talking abstractly about this issue.  Really.  Budgets are publicly available.  Go find a school budget and analyze it and identify the waste.  I’ve spent an adult lifetime looking at and managing educational budgets, and I’ve not seen waste and bloat.  Schools are actually poorly resourced because of that misperception and our inability to assume responsibility for fully funding them.  You can see the impact of low funding in education’s biggest expenditure, salaries, which are typically between 80 to 90% of any total budget.  As you’re reviewing budgets, go look at the salary scale for any public school and tell me whether you think that’s an adequate compensation for someone who’s required to have the certifications educators have.  The artificially low wages paid to teachers, especially beginning teachers, is the way in which we’ve made our choice to poorly fund education work.  Those low salaries are because we choose to believe the myth of bloat and waste; and we elect school boards and legislators who also believe that myth, or they’re afraid to challenge it by allocating the needed funding.  As a result, educators and the schools that employ them bargain contracts that distribute meager and inadequate funds. 


If we’re going to have a stable and committed educational future workforce that can be blessed with a 40+ year career like I’ve had, we can’t rely on an anticipated dedication of a few educators to make the system work.  While that worked in the past, it no longer will.  We have an educational system that behaves like it’s still 1979.  The system that worked from “back in my time” isn’t possible anymore – even though we haven’t evolved to acknowledge that change.  In truth, though, it wasn’t adequate in 1979 since paying me poorly was as exploitative then as it is today.  I know that there are lots of folks who don’t believe that we need to spend more on education.  That’s how we got where we are.  But a nation that spends $750 billion on its military can find the money to fund its educational system adequately.  

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