The Future of Public Education

Spiro Bolos
Aug 26, 2019 · 15 min read

THE PAST

Twenty-five years ago, perhaps on this very date, I began my career as a public-school teacher. Do you remember your first day? Your first year of teaching? Over the summer, I was watching a documentary about a group of 43 young teachers in Mexico who had disappeared without a trace. No adequate explanation from the government has been given to their parents for the past five years. I’ve been following their story since I met a group of protesters when I took my daughter, Kira to Ferguson after the murder of Michael Brown. But what surprised me about the film was a set of interviews from the surviving teachers at the normal school [teacher’s college] called Ayotzinapa. As you listen to these young voices, ask yourself why did you became an educator? How important to your life was your educational experience? If your Spanish is as poor as mine, please feel free to read the subtitles to better understand their words.

“When I was a kid…I liked the way the teachers treated us, and the way children treated them. Everyone was happy; kids chanting: ‘Hello, teacher!’ So then it crossed my mind that one day I would teach children my ideas, everything I know.”

“I really like being a teacher. It is the kindest profession. Doctors, reporters, soldiers, police officers, the congress people had a teacher in their lives. And teachers educate them all.”

“We need this school because we all deserve to get to be someone.”

Looking at these quotes above, I can’t help but think about our equity goals this year. Every student in our classes deserves “to get to be someone”.

It’s interesting to consider the details I can recall from that Opening Institute Day twenty-five years ago. For example, I know I was one of 108 new teachers hired that year, due to the 5 plus 5 early retirement option. I also remember the bumpy school bus ride sitting next to the bearded, tattooed Jamie Klotz, whom I think frightened me more than the daunting first year ahead of me. For those of you who don’t know him, Jamie now works at New Trier, too. That’s not me, by the way, though I probably felt much like that kid in the photo. Maybe I was just suffering motion sickness from the bus ride. By the way, this was before tattoos were cool, and yes, some things never change, right Jamie? The yellow bus delivered us to the central building where the entire district staff would gather for the usual roster of remarks from the school board, the administration, and, of course, the Association President.

A teacher by the name of Jeff Huebner was the president at the time and gave such a thought-provoking speech that I couldn’t stop talking to others about it that week. One of my senior department colleagues, sensing my excitement, informed me that Jeff was just another social studies teacher like the rest of us, and by the way, why don’t you think about getting involved in the Association? Any one of us could become president, he said. Why not you? At the time, I was so flattered, even if he was just blowing smoke. But regardless, those words of encouragement planted a long-germinating seed in me.

Words do matter. Twenty-five years later, I am honored that you have allowed me to serve you not only once, but twice. And during this milestone year, my 25th, of all years. I want to thank both Paul Moretta and Jason Dane for their service, but I also want to make the claim that despite an unexpected constitutional crisis (thanks, Ed Zwirner!), the state of our Association is strong. One piece of evidence is this: #thefutureisfemale. (Jen Karakosta won, by the way. You can tell because she’s the one wearing the lei.) Although it’s been 13 years since we were last led by a woman as president, this slate of candidates is proof that our Association can accomplish just about anything if we decide to make it a priority (Thanks, Nominating Committee!)

THE PRESENT

But the same cannot be said for the state of public education in the United States. New Trier may be a lighthouse, but we’re certainly not an island. Just like other schools across the nation, we need to recruit the very best professionals to educate and support our exceptional students, because research shows that “effective teachers are the MOST important school-based determinant of student educational performance” (EPI). But finding and hiring the best is not possible if the private sector is increasingly more appealing to young college graduates.

Why would this be the case? In a recent survey of college-bound students, only 5% were interested in pursuing a career in education, down from 21% in 2010. As our new HR Director, Renee Zoladz reported in the newsletter, every state in the union is now experiencing a teacher shortage, especially in the realm of Special Education. Why? A big piece of the puzzle is the money.

The Economic Policy Institute has dubbed this issue the “teacher pay penalty”, or “the percent by which public school teachers [and other professionals] are paid less than comparable workers [with the equivalent amount of educational attainment].” Put simply, the teacher pay penalty is the answer to the question we hesitate to ask ourselves: “how much money would you be making if you were working in the private sector?” And the teacher pay penalty is even greater for men than for women, which helps explain why the profession is still 75% women. If teachers are truly overpaid as some have charged, why haven’t men, for example, flocked into teaching?

Right away, one might argue that this deficit is chiefly due to the Great Recession of 2008, but according to the data, the teacher pay penalty has been a feature of working life since the early 1970s, and actually began to widen in 1994, coincidentally, the year I began my teaching career. Correlation? Causation? (I’ll leave that to my social science colleagues to decide). In the late nineteen seventies (1979), the teacher pay penalty, regardless of gender, was almost 6% (5.5%). In 2017, it grew to a record high of nearly 19% (18.7%).

According to Stanford Education Policy Professor Linda Darling-Hammond,

“Even if teachers may be more motivated by altruism than some other workers, teaching must compete with other occupations for talented college and university graduates… Teachers are more likely to quit when they work in districts with lower wages and when their salaries are low relative to alternative wage opportunities, especially in high-demand fields like math and science” (Darling-Hammond, et al).

In fact, in no state are teachers paid more than other college graduates. Look at the states at the very top of this bar graph: they have the largest teacher pay penalty. Is it any wonder then, that the #REDforED strikes in 2018 and ’19 which began with a 16-day strike in West Virginia subsequently spread quickly to Arizona, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Colorado?

This pay penalty creates teacher shortages. Closer to home, “an annual survey of Illinois superintendents found that in 2018 upwards of 85% said they had a problem finding teachers and substitutes. Superintendents in central and southern Illinois reported the most trouble getting qualified candidates.” We know this is an increasingly common problem, even at New Trier. But it’s even worse at Chicago Public Schools. In the last school year, nearly one-third of CPS buildings “had at least one regular education or special education teacher position open all year long”, according to WBEZ.

The problem is most acute at schools serving low-income and black students. They are twice as likely as all other schools to have a yearlong teacher vacancy. Perhaps not surprisingly, CPS schools with majority white student populations had zero yearlong vacancies. Even if a position is filled, it’s usually by an under qualified teacher with a temporary or emergency license; someone who is lacking in credentials.

But teachers usually have generous benefit packages, some may argue. Even where an increased benefit share of compensation is the case, it has not been enough to offset the growing teacher pay penalty. And let’s keep in mind that only salaries, not benefits, can be spent on housing, food, and other necessary expenses.

Speaking of affordable housing, USA Today (not exactly a bastion of liberal opinion) recently completed a ground-breaking analysis of the relationship between new teacher salaries and housing costs. The report lamented that “[n]ew teachers can’t afford the median rent almost anywhere in the U.S.” And let’s not forget the additional costs young people bear: after paying for an internship we politely call “student teaching”, these aspiring professionals are then saddled with student debt, health insurance contributions, and oftentimes, child-care costs.

One of the least affordable metropolitan areas in the nation is Miami. Even top-earning, veteran teachers struggle to meet rent demands, taking on various side-hustles like driving an Uber. And I just happen to know someone who teaches English there. My oldest daughter, Katina. A “typical” week consists of an hour-long meeting to start the day, a 25-minute lunch period, and a single planning period. This is to be ready to teach a total of 6 classroom presentations, three to six preps, students ranging grade levels from middle to high school. Oh, and an advisory that requires bi-weekly goal setting in reading, math and vocation and frequent check-ins to be entered online.

Katina is an instructor at a school called Pace Center for Girls. On the surface, it’s a wonderful gender-specific intervention for at-risk girls grades 6 to 12 who often have experienced a history of abuse, academic failure, and harmful relationships. Of the girls in this program, 98% are kids of color. Although PACE markets itself as a gentle “non-profit”, it doesn’t exactly treat its employees in a way that encourages them to stay. For example, educators work 12 months out of the year with 10 “wellness” days off, total. PACE also does not contribute to the Florida Retirement System. And the pay at PACE is substantially lower than a public school district salary; instead, compensation must be negotiated by each individual teacher. Is it any surprise that they are not a union shop? How long do you think any of us could last at a school system like that?

When I visited Katina recently to observe her at her school, I found out that she was the longest-tenured teacher at the school: one year and six months. The morning we went to school together, she was charged with delivering professional development to the staff, before having to teach her own classes. I was there to present a guest lesson on the Supreme Court, since the girls had all seen the documentary on Ruth Bader Ginsberg, RBG. As I imagine most of us would be, I was a little trepidatious at the thought of filling 90 minutes with a group of students I had never met before.

To my relief, I had never experienced such eager participation and spirited discussion. Besides the subject at hand, we talked about the people in our lives who helped us become who we are today. It came as no surprise to me that a few girls mentioned the staff at PACE, specifically Katina. At the end of the period, the girls asked me if I would stay and be their social studies teacher. We then had a frank talk about how much money it would take to lure me there. I asked them to guess my salary. “$40,000! Nope. $60,000! $80,000?” Sadly, they never even came close. Afterward, I was feeling pretty proud of the lesson until Katina revealed to me, “Dad, these girls haven’t had a social studies teacher in over a year.” [Thus the largely empty bulletin board]

There were other unsettling discoveries in this little-regulated school. Though PACE is touted as significantly reducing recidivism for its students, it burns out its teachers and pits professionals against each other in a struggle for diminishing resources, spending close to ⅓ per student compared to New Trier. The young women and girls I taught that day were not only vulnerable in their respective home situations, but also subject to the whims of unchecked administrators who are sometimes more interested in public-private partnerships at the expense of instructional time.

Earlier in the day, the teaching staff was told there was a “surprise” guest speaker arriving during the second block. I mistakenly assumed it was me, but as we led half the class down the hall, we were greeted with this representative from Walgreens, who gave a spirited infomercial on the importance of skin care in the hot Miami sun, and by the way, she brought with her free samples. The girls who remained behind in the classroom were treated to complimentary “makeovers” in place of a period of instruction. Look at the faces of the two students seated at their desks. They were as disappointed as I was that this is how they were to be spending valuable class time. What choice did they have but to submit? And what power did their non-unionized teaching staff have to resist?

I couldn’t help wonder: was this really corporate magnanimity at work or just a cheap attempt at recruiting low-income kids to become their future and underpaid labor force? When schools are underfunded and privatized, predatory businesses descend upon them.

But neither are we immune. Consider our own latest nemesis, JUUL, a $38 billion dollar company and the bringer of the fruit-flavored vaping revolution now plaguing our classrooms…and our bathrooms. As reported last month in the New York Times, “Last summer…Juul Labs paid a charter school organization in Baltimore $134,000 to set up a five-week summer camp to teach children healthy lifestyles.” The curriculum was written entirely by JUUL. At a college-prep school in New York City, a JUUL representative met with students — with not a single teacher present — and told them the company’s e-cigarettes were ‘totally safe.’ “Other schools across the country were offered $10,000 from the e-cigarette company for the right to talk to students in classrooms or after school. In Richmond, California last year, JUUL gave the Police Activities League $90,000 to offer the company’s vaping education program…to middle school and high school students who faced suspension for using cigarettes.” According to the Center for Responsive Politics, in 2018, JUUL has spent almost a million dollars ($940,000) on lobbying thus far. I don’t think I need to tell this audience how suspect the motives are of this corporation, including this weekly full-page ad in the New York Times, the very same paper that blew the whistle on its activities.

THE FUTURE

I’d like to show you one last clip from the film I introduced at the beginning of this speech. This is an interview with another first-year teacher who has to deal with criticism from his own government. The teachers at that particular school have an intimate relationship with the cultivation of the land, which actually makes perfect sense in the same way that we teachers foster the intellectual and social development of our students. But then he says something rather unexpected:

“The government keeps asking us why we work the land if we’re not training to be agricultural engineers. It [the government] tells us to focus on education, not on politics, because we won’t be political scientists. Political ideology is essential here. Plenty of teachers learned here a sense of awareness. Many of those teachers working in Guerrero, in Mexico, attended, graduated from a rural normal school.

I remember a teacher once told us that in order to be a true teacher, one must study five essential disciplines: sociology, psychology, history, pedagogy, and politics. And when we study politics, many think it is something that does not affect us, but actually, it concerns our reality, it concerns every citizen’s issues, the people’s issues.”

So what about the future of public education? I know I want my daughter and passionate teachers like her to stay in the profession. How can we fortify the institution we all serve and love, regardless of our inevitable differences of opinion? I think many of us are conflicted when it comes to politics. On the one hand, we’re told not to express political opinions in places like the classroom, regardless of the latest outrage in news media reports. On the other hand, we tell our members to get involved by calling legislators, going to Board meetings and other political activities outside of school when many of us would just prefer to close our doors and teach our classes. What this brave young man stated echoes the words of NEA vice-president Becky Pringle. Paraphrasing Plato (who in turn was channeling Socrates), she asserted, “Anyone who thinks they are too good or too smart to be involved in politics will be ruled by those who are neither good nor smart.”

At least in the state of Illinois, perhaps the single biggest obstacle to positive change has been eliminated. I know you all saw the results of the gubernatorial election. But did you read what happened closer to home this summer? Bruce Rauner has not only been voted out of office, but apparently has left town!

We have had a legislative spring session that is nothing short of historic. Consider the following pro-public education pieces of legislation. All of these have passed with bi-partisan support according to State Sen. Andy Manar (D-Bunker Hill) :

  • Repealed the 3%, and reinstated the 6% pension salary cap (SB 1814)
  • $40,000 teacher minimum wage (HB 2078)
  • Drivers Ed Protections (HB 247)
  • Eliminated the Basic Skills Test requirement
  • Removed the prohibition on paying student teachers
  • Allowed Early Childhood aides to be paid while student teaching
  • Additional Education Funding in the budget — (This year’s budget includes an additional 5 percent in funding for higher education, an additional 6 percent for community college and an additional $375 million for K-12, as well as $50 million increase in college grant money and a $50 million increase in early childhood education funding.)

And much, much, more!

What can you do? And I’m talking to ALL of you, not just our Association members. Educators are not only present in the classroom, but also the hallways. What can all of us educators do?

  1. Lobby for state reforms that recruit more highly qualified new teachers to the profession. For example, now that the 6% cap has been reinstated, we should be eliminating divisive policies like Tier II.
  2. Vote for political candidates who want to close the teacher pay penalty gap. I don’t care if you consider yourself a Republican or Democrat. You’re here because you believe in this common enterprise we engage in. Vote for candidates who support and fund public education.
  3. Encourage your (or any) students to join (us in) the profession. Why not? Words matter. Your words matter. As Paul Sally wrote in the newsletter, “your kind and encouraging words [can] change the experience of a student”. After 25 years, I’m thinking about my legacy. Join me in telling your students on the first day why (not how) you became an educator. You’re someone who can get them thinking more about knowledge and relationships and less about money and status. As labor leader César Chávez once said, “The end [or purpose] of all education should surely be service to others.” And isn’t joining the education profession a way to live the motto? “[to commit] lives to the service of humanity”?

THANK YOU.

Spiro Bolos

Written by

Teacher, Photographer, Musician, Eater of Food

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