The United States’ education system ranks only #14 in the world, according to Pearson’s latest index. Nations at the top of this list year after year, like South Korea and Finland, are there because teachers are revered and education is a matter of national pride.
Are we giving our teachers the tools, support and, above all, the respect necessary to be the best? Or are we coasting along, convinced we will always be the greatest nation in the world? The American education system is slipping. The 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment exam (PISA) showed that 15 year olds in the US ranked #36 in math, #28 in science and #24 in reading worldwide.
Where do we begin?
Treat Teachers like Heroes
Soldiers returning from war are publicly celebrated at sporting events. They deserve respect, but where is the fanfare for the teachers? Will the game stop to shine a spotlight on Mrs. Johnson, who in her many years of service as a math teacher has graduated hundreds of students including numerous college graduates with business success stories?
The athletes are well paid and admired to excess. Teachers may not pack a stadium or draw people to the television, but they deserve it too. The admiration starts at the individual level. Parents can let their children know what great work their teachers put into every lesson.
Then let each town throw a parade for its teachers. Why not start the summer with it? Roll them right down Main Street to the park for a barbecue. Celebrate special achievements, retirements and milestones of service.
Fewer Hours, Like the Finns
The average Finnish teacher spends 600 hours a year in the classroom. The average American teacher spends 1100. The Finns value ongoing training for teachers, collaboration with their colleagues and meeting with families. Much of Finnish education occurs outside the classroom through a multitude of extracurricular activities. Finnish teachers are not overworked and feel in control of their careers.
How can we trim some hours from our teachers’ schedules and take some weight from their shoulders? Bring field trips back. They shouldn’t only be an elementary thing. Get the middle and high school students outdoors and into businesses. Let them see the world they are preparing for.
Enable our teachers to exchange ideas and then let them implement them.
More Money, Like the South Koreans
Better-paid teachers do not directly equal better students. Yet many college graduates choose other professions because of the money. Consulting firm McKinsey polled 900 college students and learned that 68 percent would consider teaching if the salary started at $65,000 and rose to $150,000. Instead, the average starting salary is $39,000. After 25 years, the average is $67,000. South Korea pays their teachers 2.5 times as much.
Many teachers leave the job because they cannot afford to stay. Sixty-two percent of teachers have second jobs to pay their bills. Are they learning, thinking and creating when not in the classroom? No. They are working elsewhere and worrying about making ends meet. Forty-six percent of American teachers quit before their fifth year. South Korea loses only one percent of its teachers every year.
Can we afford to spend more on education? Can we afford not to? Picture a near future where other nations are innovating and creating while the United States regresses economically. No one ever says we cannot afford more missiles and tanks.
One perk teachers have that other professions do not is time off. Most workplaces go every week without shutting down for Christmas and summer. Can a cash-strapped teacher truly enjoy this time, or is it a chance to work another job?
If the government can’t pay our teachers enough, private business should step up. Airlines, hotel chains and travel websites can help teachers have a great trip and recuperate. Cut them a deal. It’s okay to turn it into self-serving promotion. Just help those tired teachers get to the beach.
Then brag about it. Be the airline that lets teachers fly free once per year. Be the hotel chain that pampers educators. You will be admired and other consumers will choose you.
Have you ever seen a commercial encouraging young people to serve their nation and teach? Do schools reach out to entice the best and brightest? The education system is letting great talent slip away to other professions.
In Finland, only 1 in 10 applicants to teaching colleges is admitted. Then the Finns actively recruit the top college graduates. They want their best students to raise the next generation of students.
In the United States, we are not going after the best candidates. Maybe we are not even convinced it’s a great job.
It all comes down to having a culture that values education and respects teachers. This nation is resting, assured it will always keep its super-power status. It needs to wake up and realize the rest of the world is stepping ahead. Education needs to change.
The good news? We are a nation of innovators. American ingenuity used to be our cornerstone. Back when Colonists were pushing for freedom against an Imperial heavyweight, we knew we had the resilience to succeed.
We put a man on the moon. We can rebuild education. Someone stomp a foot and state that the United States of America will have the best education in the world by 2030.
- Pearson: Index of Cognitive Skills and Educational Attainment
- NY Times: The High Cost of Low Teacher Salaries
- TED: What the Best Education Systems are Doing Right