We Should Treat Main Street Teachers Like Wall Street CEOs

Nicholas Kristoff advocates paying teachers more money to improve education. This definitely has face-value appeal, despite the hype of overpaid teachers. That said, I think teachers are underpaid. However, the Wall Street rationale is that teachers are in it for the money – because really who isn’t in this world? – and that by offering them more money you attract the “better” teachers. This is neoliberalism plain and simple. What’s more frustrating is Kristoff goes on to suggest

…it makes sense to cut corners elsewhere to boost teacher salaries. Research suggests that students would benefit from a tradeoff of better teachers but worse teacher-student ratios. Thus there are growing calls for a Japanese model of larger classes, but with outstanding, respected, well-paid teachers.

The question remains what qualifies as student achievement and quality of education, but I think Kristoff champions a spreading attitude that economic out-put is a relevant metric (or at least concern) for assessing our teachers. I don’t think this means we’ll be seeing teachers directly assessed on the economic fortunes of their students down the road, but it is unsettling to see the background chatter of education shift more toward the economic and productivity. It may sound sensationalist, but I think it forms an ideological backdrop against which more productivity-oriented policies and practices gain acceptance. The difference this will make on teachers is hard to say, but these are tropes of Wall Street: equivocating quality with monetary quantities and growth-productivity-and-more-growth.

I wish I could say “needless to say,” because it seems to need saying: if we want better, more dedicated and passionate teachers, we shouldn’t focus on giving them more money but on restructuring (if not in some ways eliminating) the relationship between income, security, comfort and all around well-being. I don’t think most good teachers are in it for the money, and would-be good teachers don’t avoid going into education because it isn’t lucrative, but because there’s hell to pay in this society if you aren’t given to filthy lucre.

3 thoughts on “We Should Treat Main Street Teachers Like Wall Street CEOs

  1. I like your post. No one goes into teaching looking to ‘strike it rich’ unless they’re both personally and professionally misguided, and education is among the last professions that should be run on an economic logic–quality goes down, price goes up, all in the name of ‘cost efficiency.’ Nothing sacred, no facet of humanity unblemished by profit.

  2. 1. I, and the people I work with, DO NOT TEACH FOR THE MONEY. In fact, I value the time I am afforded as equal to my pay in compensation.

    2. This neo-liberal approach to schools is much like the neo-liberal/Shock Doctrine approach to the United States economy. That is, it is the last area of our society (or world economy in the case of the US economy) that has not yet been subjected to the rapacious policies of blood suckering corporatists.

    3. We have a cultural problem that is antithetical to a good education and I think its difficult for people to get their head around.
    a. First of all we need to understand that real learning is not a consumer product but the result of work on the part of the learner. Thus, school is superfluous. A good learn, asking the right questions with enthusiasm, from the right people, can learn just about anything. Thus, school is essentially an efficiency for learners that either do not have the capacity to be good learners on their own, do not know how to be good learners on their own, and/or do not have access to skill and information resources. In that regard, teachers are a short-cut, and expert if you will in helping people become self directed learners and at best, experts in their particular subject area. This expertise conveys authority and thus, leaders. In that teachers are leaders, providing direction, focus, and information, their work is only as successful as the respect, or obedience, they are given by the learner. They must be followed if the efficiency of schooling is to be “successful.” Therefore, the learner is in the paradoxical position of at once being required to retain agency in their education while simultaneously being required to submit to and cooperate with their instructor. It is much like the paradoxical relationship between “democracy” and “government.”
    b. So the cultural problem is two fold; on the one hand we see government services in the same way we approach all social relations, as commodities; a consumer product. This is a problem because education rightly understood is not a product or service (like prostitution or legal council with their concrete results) that you can purchase but a process in which you engage. On the other hand, as consumers, we have been taught that we have autonomous power within the market and therefore, we are not required to submit to anyone’s authority if we choose not to. And because we misunderstand our social relation to both the process of education and the means by which we attain it, resistance to the process of education is reinforced within society at home, in the media, and in our politics. Our need to have a concrete result in all social relations obliterates our ability to value abstract or long term results that are only quantifiable in our life long actions, behaviors, and work. Thus, I submit that the fact that most people in our society eventually obtain a place of employment, pay their bills, and successfully reproduce their labor on a daily basis is evidence of the success of our educational model. And if not the result of education, at least the result of the fear and deprivation engendered by market neo-liberalism itself. But I digress.
    c. Our social misalignment in this regard is further hampered by our over emphasis on quantitative scientism; our desire to measure all things, including things in which this approach is not appropriate such as our social relations, in regard to data and/or credentials. Thus, we “fetishize the numbers.” We have such faith in scientific positivism, and our unease with, or fear of the amorphous, abstract, or subjective truth, that we will attempt to graph and chart everything numerically, to create the concrete wherein the concrete does not or worse, can not exist. We reduce our social relations to a number.
    d. Quantifying our social relations is not wholly a bad thing, of course. For example, knowing how many people live in poverty is a good number to know. It can help us make decisions in regard to the economy. But the problem with the number is that it doesn’t tell us why people are poor, why so many people are poor, or how to get them out of poverty. Of course, it is just one data point. But poverty is something that can be quantified. Eduction is not. Yes, we can measure correct items on a test, degrees conferred, days attended, drop outs prevented, literate members of society, etc . . . but what we can not know SIMPLY by looking at these numbers is the degree to which someone is a self-directed, life long learner. The problem with the corporate metric as applied to education is the subjectivity of the standards and the evaluation of those standards. I can count widgets off the line, but what does a high school diploma really mean? What does an ‘A’ or a ’96’ really mean. What do any of these numbers mean in and of themselves when the incentives to juke those numbers are so extraordinarily politicized? The ethos of the typical American in regard to education is thus, “Damn it! I will not cooperate, I will be educated, I will not work, and I will not fail. Fuck you very much.”

    4. Thus, it doesn’t matter how much you pay teachers. The results are totally in the hands of the learner. What is clear is that the only way to make the neo-liberal model of financial incentives leading to more highly qualified instructors is if you can train the people that go into education, people with a more altruistic personality, to be less altruistic, and greedier or more selfish. Unfortunately, this will lead to a more authoritarian process of indoctrination (yes, more so than we already have) and thus, a less democratic society because the agency of the individual requisite for a democratic society will be beaten out of the population. We are already far down that road but the application of market neo-liberalism to education is the final death to the democratic ideal. Fortunately, this ideal will never die. She is the many headed hydra of the human spirit. We may live out the rest of our lives in the space between the lopping off of her head and its regrowth, but rest assured, she will reemerge.

  3. It is bizarre how the factory model of schools has so taken root in the public discourse on reform, when the learner-centered approach to education as a process is at the root of all authentic education–and most teachers know this. The “common core” standards movement does hold a glimmer of hope for reform that matters: if teachers once again have the power to design their own [project-based, student-centered, real-world-relevant] lessons based on broad standards for the understandings which should result, students will again have the opportunity to learn.

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