Thursday, March 10, 2011

Money For Nothing?

 The Dire Straits recorded "Money For Nothing" in 1985 in response to listening to a guy working in an appliance store complain about how musicians did virtually nothing and got paid a fortune.  I have to wonder if perhaps the song was playing in the background on some oldies station when Governor Corbett sat down to write up his budget proposal.  Three weeks after Wisconsin governor Scott Walker took his bizarre balance the budget by punishing teachers and nurses stance, setting off a history making public uprising in the state capitol, Governor Corbett apparently decided it wasn’t fair that he was getting all the attention.  His budget proposal cuts state funding to primary and secondary schools by 10% and appropriations to the 18 state run and land grant universities by 50%.  Governor Corbett’s budge would cut funding for programs that are designed to keep class sizes in primary grades (K-3) small in poorer schools—‘cause a poverty stricken rural or urban school is where you really want a class of 40 first graders.  He has also proposed changing laws to prevent local school districts from raising local or property taxes in order to make up for any difference in funding; a proposal directly “borrowed” from Governor Walker.  Apparently Mr. Corbett may have a genuine complaint with his own public school, as they clearly did not teach him that plagiarism is bad.

I’ve got plenty to say about Mr. Corbett’s ideas for education and what I think of them, but they’ll keep.  After all, he’s not going anywhere for four long years.  I doubt very, very much that he’s got the chops to be tapped for anything bigger and better as was former governor Tom Ridge, so I’m afraid we’re stuck with him.  My more pressing question has to do with what seems to be the pervasive belief among Republican governors and employees of Fox News that teachers are grossly overpaid for what one Fox News talking head called “a part time job.”  Their stand is that teachers work only those hours when they are in class, and assume that teachers enter the building roughly 5 minutes before homeroom begins and leave 5 minutes after the last bus leaves, and do nothing but sunbathe from June through August.  It’s clear from their accusations that the last school teacher any of these folks has ever met was in the twelfth grade.  Nor have they ever met a college student.

Wait, a college kid?  What would a college kid have to do with how much a school teacher works or gets paid?  College students tend to fall into two camps with respect to choosing their majors and future professions.  The first group are enormously practical and choose a major based on what talents they believe (or often their parents believe) they have and how they can turn those talents into a paycheck.  These kids have a very clear vision of what college is costing them, what loans they will have to pay back, and what the best route to making enough money to be able to meet those loans and still eat more than Ramen noodles.  These are the students who come to me and want to know not only what jobs they can get with their degree, but what other training they might need to get that job, what does it pay, and how hard is it to get the job.  These kids are making very adult, practical decisions.  The second group is made up of the ones driven by passion.  They are the ones who come to me to tell me they’ve chosen their major because they want to help people.  They tell me all the things that are wrong in the world and how, exactly, they intend to fix them.  They never ask about additional training (although they usually know what’s required) and they never ask about salary.  They are under no illusions about what that salary is likely to be.  Guess which group the future teachers tend to belong to.

Has it never occurred to any of the people screaming for the heads of teachers, that a profession where people get paid a fortune for very little work should be one that’s EXTREMELY popular?  In many universities, including mine, some programs in engineering, nursing, and business are so popular the competition for the few slots available in the program every year is phenomenal.  Why are these programs so popular?  Because there is the widespread perception among students and their parents that these are areas where very good paying jobs are plentiful.  Even in nursing, where no one would argue that the job is easy, the widespread media coverage of a nursing shortage in this country has created a mindset where students believe they at least will be guaranteed to get a good paying job immediately after graduation.  Dozens of my students are desperately trying to figure out a way to get one of those coveted seats in a nursing program for a shot at a good paying job that requires long hours and hard work.  How many do you think would be lined up for a job where they would make a lot of money for short hours, two and half months of vacation, and very little work?  If they believed that, they’d be lined up around the block trying to become teachers.  They’re not.

Teach for America is a program that seeks to place successful college graduates, particularly in math and science fields, into disadvantaged urban and rural areas where graduation rates are typically low.  ToA trains these graduates in education methods and theory, get them temporary certification to teach in the state of their placement, and places them in a school that desperately needs them to teach for two years.  After two years, the students have the option of getting permanently certified to be teachers or move on to whatever else they’ve decided to do.  Teachers in the program are paid the same salary as other beginning teachers in that district, but also receive program benefits such as loan forbearance/forgiveness as incentives for graduates to join the program.  Every semester, a representative from ToA asks to come to my upper level classes to beg students to consider applying to the program.  Ask yourself this: why does a profession whose members are grossly overpaid for very little work need a recruitment program and incentives to join for only two years?  It has never once been my experience that the Actors’ Guild, the NFL, or any recording company ever asked to come to my class to beg my students to consider being performers or athletes for two years.  Despite the fact that many of my students are interested in medicine, never once has a representative from the AMA asked to come and recruit students into the field.  They don’t have to.  My students are not stupid and they know a good deal when they hear one.  Teaching may be a good many things as a profession, but given what it’s costing most of these kids to get through college (and it will only cost them more now in PA), it is not a good financial deal.

 I had a teacher once in middle school who taught me that if it waddles like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s very unlikely that you’re looking at an elephant. A job that people have to be begged to join, where you're more likely to drive a Camry than a Mercedes, probably isn't the one where you get "Money for Nothing." It’s a shame Governor Corbett and Governor Walker apparently never had such teachers.  They might recognize what a “resource” a good education really is.

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