TheDC Analysis: Teachers aren’t heroes and pretending they are only muddles the debate over education reform

Jamie Weinstein Senior Writer
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Teachers are not heroes.

I know, you are not supposed to say that. You are supposed to only speak about the unbelievable job that teachers do under impossible circumstances all the while being paid slave wages. But, for the most part, this is American mythology.

Last week, MSNBC — a cable news station similar to Fox News but without viewers — promoted “Education Nation,” a weeklong series highlighting the problems and potential solutions to our nation’s public school system. From the little I saw, it was largely positive, with great guests proposing innovative, reform minded solutions.

But intermixed in the substance was the sort of flowery rhetoric that you would expect and we as a society have been forced to accept. For instance, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan explained that we should want our “best and the brightest” to go into teaching and that teachers do “the most important work in society.”

This sounds nice and it seems like the right thing to say, but it is also poppycock.

Do we really want our “best and brightest” to go into teaching? How about having them become CEOs of innovative companies that create jobs and expand our economy? How about they go into the sciences and invent ways for us to live our lives better?

Mark me down as one who doesn’t think we should hope our very “best and brightest” go into teaching remedial math. I prefer them curing cancer. I’m quite content with having a reasonably competent, acceptably intelligent, friendly and committed person teach addition and subtraction to America’s tots, thank you very much.

Public school teachers also aren’t so unbelievably underpaid as we hear repeated over and over again. This doesn’t mean we don’t need to change public education compensation schemes – we do; good teachers should be paid more, bad teachers should be paid less (or fired). But, on average, teachers don’t seem to have it as bad as we pretend.

In a 2003 article in EducationNext, University of Missouri-Columbia economics Professor Michael Podgursky took a look at the claim — propagated by Teachers’ Unions and regurgitated uncritically by us all — that teachers are horribly underpaid. His conclusion? It’s nonsense.

According to his research, public school teachers work less than 190 days a year, while professionals like accountants and lawyers work closer to 240 days a year.  What’s more, teachers spend less time in the “office” — indeed, some state union contracts stipulate just how many hours teachers are allowed to be on campus. And while they surely take some work home, so do other professionals. The short of it is: teachers have a GREAT work schedule.

This, indeed, is part of what makes teaching an attractive profession. Besides the three main reasons to be a teacher – June, July, and August – the limited amount of time one spends on campus provides more time for a family life. You can make more money being a lawyer, but you probably won’t see your family as much.

What’s more, when Podgursky crunches the numbers, the average salary of public school teachers on a per hour basis isn’t so bad compared to other professions —  they actually fare better than accountants and some types of engineers.

So, in sum, it turns out that teachers are generally not struggling in coal mining conditions for migrant worker wages.

NEXT: Mythology muddles important debate about education reform

This is not to belittle teachers. Far from it. There are many amazing teachers who work under difficult circumstances, especially in the more dangerous inner city schools. Many do astonishing and important work, and should be applauded as well as emulated by some of their more inferior colleagues. Those on the forefront of education reform are even doing work that could greatly transform our future for the better.

But, no, teachers are not heroes. Pretending they are muddles the important debate about education reform we must have in this country. Worse, it plays into the hands of the destructive teachers’ unions that are ruining our education system.