Waiting for American Teacher

In American public opinion it almost goes without saying that teachers should be paid more. The public is especially supportive of increasing compensation for accomplished teachers, teachers dedicated to working in hard to staff subjects, and teachers committed to closing the achievement gap. We’ve seen several polls that demonstrate the sophisticated thinking that both the public and teachers bring to this issue. The 2010 PDK/Gallup Poll is the most recent example, but there’s an extensive body of evidence that has been accumulated by Education Sector and Public Agenda, Scholastic and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other sources.  With all of the support for higher salaries and a professional compensation system, it begs the question, “Why haven’t we done it yet?”

Enter Dave Eggers’ Teacher Salary Project, and the documentary movie American Teacher.  They identify a core problem in American education – “the real and imminent crisis in our educational system—how little we value our strongest, most committed, and most effective teachers, and the ripple effect this has on how our children learn and their potential for future success.”  With a rare blend of passion and reason, Eggers and company work backward from the right thing – excellent and committed teachers – and they ask, “Can’t we just get to solving the problem?”

American Teacher does not offer a specific solution.  What makes the film worth waiting for, though, is the way it models the tone and demeanor that is necessary to find one.  It is deeply respectful of how high the stakes are for our students, and how hard the work is for our teachers.  It is vividly aware of how much the job of teaching has changed, and that the new professional burdens that teachers carry are one among many reasons to change the ways they are paid.  Most of all, it explains that if we are going to increase teacher pay, we have some tough questions to ask and answer.

For at least a quarter century, policymakers and thought leaders have been looking to answer those questions. Too often, they have lined up in sides and shouted across a table at one another about why their best ideas, and none other, should prevail.  The pros and cons are more than familiar, and teachers are left with variations of the single salary schedule, a compensation technology invented in the era when you had to call an operator to place a long distance call.  It offers teachers a form of security, and it is a tool that school districts use to address matters of basic fairness. It can be serviced easily through collective bargaining or legislation.  But it does not fulfill the wishes of either the public or the teachers, who are making do with a form of security, not a pay system worthy of their evolving profession.

These are tough questions to answer. They can only be answered when people sit down to have tough conversations and find new ways of working together centered around the common goals of improving student achievement and paying teachers a professional salary that they deserve.

Tonight, I will be attending a screening of American Teacher in Washington with Chrisanne LaHue, who is an instructional leader for the District of Columbia Public Schools. Secretary Duncan will give opening remarks.

Click here to watch preview clips of American Teacher.

–Brad Jupp

Brad Jupp is Senior Advisor for Teacher Effectiveness and Quality at the Department of Education