Last week was Teacher Appreciation Week, and I intended to write on the subject, but a more newsy topic intervened. That’s an apt metaphor for the plight of teachers in America today. We live in a media environment in which the urgent often crowds out the important. But this week, I will stick to my plans.
In “East of Eden,” a sprawling, magisterial novel about the great American West, John Steinbeck writes, “In the country the repository of art and science was the school, and the schoolteacher shielded and carried the torch of learning and of beauty. . . . The teacher was not only an intellectual paragon and a social leader, but also the matrimonial catch of the countryside. A family could indeed walk proudly if a son married the schoolteacher.”
The picture Steinbeck paints (set in the early 20th century) is almost unrecognizable in today’s America, where schoolteachers are so poorly paid that they are about five times as likely as the average full-time worker to have a second job, according to Vox. We have all heard about stagnant middle-class wages. But the average pay for a teacher in the United States, adjusted for inflation, has actually declined over the past 15 years, while their health-care costs have risen substantially. The Economist reports that teachers earn 60 percent of what a professional with comparable education does.
The average salary for a teacher in many states is under $50,000. Teachers in West Virginia went on strike a few months ago to demand higher wages, and the government agreed to a 5 percent pay raise, which means the average salary will rise to only $48,000. Like many other states, West Virginia failed to restore education spending after slashing it in the wake of the financial crisis a decade ago. As of last year, per-pupil state funding (adjusted for inflation) was still down between 8 and 28 percent in five of the six states where teachers have now gone on strike, according to a study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
With low wages and stretched resources, American educators burn out and quit the profession at twice the rate of some of the highest-achieving countries, as Linda Darling-Hammond of the Learning Policy Institute points out. Since 35 percent fewer Americans have