My father and I like to talk about the state of schools in America from time to time. A friend of his lives in one of the Northeast’s second-tier cities: not a Boston or Hartford or Providence, but a step below that. He’s lived there most of his life, he’s well-connected and he knows people throughout the surrounding towns, too. His daughter has just achieved certification as a teacher. And he, even with all his connections and networking skills, can’t seem to find her a teaching job.
There aren’t any.
This didn’t make sense to me at first. Then my father explained it, thus. Schools, like most businesses that rely on government money, know that the $100 billion promised to schools in the stimulus package probably won’t reach them for four years. Just because Congress authorized the expenditure, doesn’t mean the money will be released in a week or a month. Delays of two to four years are not uncommon; relief money for Hurricane Katrina was only beginning to pour out a few months ago. That’s a delay of three and a half years.
But if you’re a teacher near retirement age, you may think, if I can hold out a couple of years more, I might get a salary boost. That will boost the teacher’s pension pay, and that adds encouragement to stick it out a couple years more. Moreover, the economy just did a little soft shoe and blues number on his retirement portfolio. Maybe he can’t retire right now. So that’s incentive to stick around a little longer. Thus, the school’s most expensive employees, the older teachers, are sticking around for a year or two longer than they might normally.
These are not teachers that are going to be innovating in the classroom. They might be beloved, they might be skillful, but they are not the ones signing out laptops for their class every day, or starting class blogs, or designing wikis.
Meanwhile, principals and heads of school and superintendents and union representatives are having to make tough choices on who to hire and fire in the economic downturn which is coupled with an increase in the number of charter schools, homeschools, and other sources of mischiefs real or perceived. The charter schools want to avoid taking special-education students, because they don’t have the personnel or facilities for them. So the main line public schools are keeping the most expensive teachers, and the most expensive students.
Add to this… wait, there’s more? I hear you scream in horror… Add to this the reality that most companies of any size must run training programs for their new hires. Training in business practices. How to make change. How to manage employees. How to operate a cash register. How to be a bookkeeper. How to obey the ethics rules of their profession.
We’re left with the impression that schools which were doing a moderately bad but reasonably acceptable job, are now doing much worse. The graduates come out unprepared for any sort of real work; they are not conditioned to be entrepreneurial or ambitious; they suffer from a lack of skills applicable in real-world environments.
Further, the real-world environments increasingly have nothing to do with school. Teachers work in businesses that pretend they are not businesses, receive pensions like those that have largely vanished from the American business landscape, receive health care plans that are enviably good compared with those available from most non-profit organizations, and receive low but steady income streams. Moreover, it’s expected that most of them will not be particularly good at their jobs, and will be weeded out within the first three to four years.
So. The daughter of my father’s friend can’t find a job in teaching because older teachers are afraid of retirement and afraid to innovate; because school leaders are caught in a double-bind; and because education in this country is suffering a genuine mismatch between what teachers teach and what students want to learn.