Back to School Blues

The collective groan heard across America this morning came from America's most disgruntled group of workers: public school teachers. I've never been to jail, but trust me when I tell you that Day 1 of a 180-day school year can feel like the first day of a life sentence.

Fortunately, my post-Labor Day blues are gone forever. I'm officially an ex-teacher now, and statistics reveal than I'm far from alone. A recently published article in the New York Times cites the most recent findings of the Department of Education. In the 2003-4 school year, 269,000 of the country's 3.2 million public school teachers, or 8.4 percent, called it quits. A desire to pursue another career and dissatisfaction were the reasons 56 percent of these teachers put down the red pen (or purple for those who worked in school districts where red ink is deemed to be too demoralizing) forever. The Times also notes that new teachers often leave because they feel overwhelmed by classroom stress--a result of chaotic, last-minute hiring practices.

This is exactly how my teaching career got started. After graduating from the University of California system with a degree in economics and no clue what I wanted to do with my life, I figured I'd give teaching a try. So I went down to the Los Angeles Unified School District's main office to fill out the necessary paperwork to become an elementary school teacher. After being sent from one department to the next on multiple visits (if you aren't familiar with the inefficiency of government bureaucracy, just rent Akira Kurosawa's "Ikiru"), I was finally ready to mold the minds of the next generation.

I'll never forget the gentleman from Human Resources who set up the first and only interview I'd have at a school in one of the rougher parts of Los Angeles. I overheard him tell his colleague that I would "definitely get the position" because of where the school was located. In retrospect, I can translate what he meant: Nobody wanted to teach at this inner city school; thus, the principal was starving for teachers.

But since I was starving for a job, I missed all the clues that suggested this one probably wasn't right for me. A ten-minute lesson delivered to the gifted 5th grade class was enough to convince the principal that I could take over the lowest level and worst-behaved 5th grade class a couple of weeks into the school year.

To make a long story short, I got eaten alive that year. My classroom management skills were horrible, and I received very little support from the administration. My students thought I was the nicest teacher in the world, when my goal on most days was to be the most intimidating. As a result, much of my teaching hours were spent dealing with behavior problems: In between phonics lessons, I would break up fistfights and have doors slammed in my face. The afternoon bell, alas, could never come soon enough.

While the challenges I had with discipline that year undoubtedly led me down the road to becoming a substitute teacher and eventually quitting, there are many more serious problems with public education that made me (and so many others) eager to exit the world of teaching.

Any discussion of educational reform must begin with the absurdity of teacher credentialing. Is there any reason, for example, why a college graduate with a degree in mathematics and a passion for teaching shouldn't be able to teach 8th grade geometry without a credential? Or, in my case, why I needed to learn about educational theory in order to teach American history to 5th graders? I was hired with an emergency credential, which required me to enroll in a credentialing program if I wanted to renew my contract.

I never enrolled. Taking classes at night or during the weekends (and paying for them) was the last thing in the world I wanted to do after a draining day or week in the classroom. And even if I had enrolled, I probably wouldn't have come away with much useful information anyway. Jay P. Green, a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, has revealed how education degrees are not linked to classroom success. He notes a study conducted by the Abell Foundation, which found that out of 171 available studies on the impact of teaching credentials on job performance, "only nine uncovered any significant positive relationship...[and] five found a significant negative relationship."

The negative relationship shouldn't be surprising. Most credentialing programs are far more interested in teaching teachers how to become multiculturally sensitive than providing them with the tools necessary to make sure students learn how to read. Mike Piscal, founder of some of the most successful charter schools in Los Angeles, has commented on the fact that "training is almost always detached from the reality of the classroom." Writing on the Huffington Post a while back, he explained that at his schools "a teacher needs only a scholar's zeal for the subject s/he studied in college, and a burning desire to lead the next generation." Interestingly, I contacted Piscal, my 8th grade basketball coach, by email during my first year of teaching. He told me I should come down to his school to interview one day. Although I never made it in, I often wonder if things might have turned out differently for me had I been hired at one of his schools, where everything from "lesson planning to classroom management, from discipline to communicating with parents" is taught by master teachers.

My paycheck being too small was not one of reasons I quit teaching. Contrary to the laments of so many teachers, the pay really isn't all that bad. Indeed, this is another misconception that Jay Greene has thoroughly dispelled. The average teacher makes about $45,000 a year, or rather, three-quarters of a year. The fact is that teachers only have to work about nine months per year because they get summers off. After taking into account that teachers average 7.3 working hours per day, and that they work 180 days per year, Greene found that "the average teacher gets paid a base salary equivalent to a fulltime salary of $65.440."

Yes, I know all about the amount of work teachers have to do at home. But guess what? All professionals have work to take home. Moreover, because job security for teachers is so strong (it's almost impossible to fire a teacher), they have less incentive to work extra hours.

I actually believe it's this lack of incentive to work harder that really depresses so many teachers, even if they don't want to admit it. It is human nature to want to be rewarded for a job well done. But because teachers are paid on a seniority-based schedule, the worst teachers are often paid better than the best ones.

Merit pay is the obvious answer to such a problem. Daniel Henninger wrote a must-read account in the Wall Street Journal of the performance pay program at the Meadowcliff Elementary School in Little Rock, Arkansas. In the first year of the program, the Stanford achievement scores of the school's students (80 % of whom are black) rose 17 percent. Writes Henninger: "Little Rock has to find a way to hold its best teachers. The teachers I saw at Meadowcliff Elementary seemed pretty happy to be there."

Which brings to mind the question: What, god forbid, would become of teachers' unions if they were made up of happy teachers?

Aaron Hanscom is a Los Angeles-based editor for Pajamas Media; his own blog is Scribblings.