"The Consequences of Paying our Teachers Poverty-level Wages," Flynn Ross, University of Southern Maine
Business and political leaders in Maine and across our nation recognize the importance of a strong education system for our future prosperity.
As part of that strong education system, teachers matter, and the quality of our teachers matters a lot. Here in Maine, state Sen. Rebecca Millett has proposed a bill, LD 1370, to increase the student teaching requirements for new teachers to include a minimum of 90 hours of practicum in addition to at least 15 weeks of student teaching and raise the beginning teacher salary to a minimum of $40,000. These measures would help ensure better quality of teachers, as the current $30,000 minimum salary means a teacher raising a family of four would be at about 125 percent of the poverty level, and his or her children would qualify for reduced-price lunch at school. Our teachers deserve a living wage, and we can expect higher standards for preparation in exchange for this livable wage.
Maine will need to replace a third of its teaching force in the next five to seven years with nearly a third of today’s teachers age 55 or older. This is the time to enact public policy that helps ensure we attract and prepare high-quality teachers to educate our children and future workforce.
Parents and students know a good teacher makes a difference every day in students’ lives. But we need our policymakers to know that the impact of teachers has been found to be the single most important aspect of schooling on student achievement. Eric Hanushek from Stanford University calculates that improving teacher quality could lead to increases in economic productivity equivalent to erasing the latest economic recession.
Nations that have excelled in education in the last decade have done so through a two-pronged approach: investing in the quality of their teachers and creating public policies to promote equity across schools, with a focus on ensuring even the poorest students have access to quality education. Singapore, South Korea and Finland often are cited for excellence in education. In Finland, teachers are recruited from the top 10 percent of their undergraduate classes, they receive full tuition and a living stipend to attend three years of graduate teacher preparation, and they receive a beginning salary that is comparable to engineers, doctors and lawyers. Most of our teachers in the United States complete their certification programs loaded with student debt and then earn a poverty-level salary for a family of four.
In South Korea and Singapore, political leaders recognized that their nations’ greatest resource was their children, so they invested in them — all of them. South Korea has closed the achievement gap more than other nations in the past decade. I’ve written previously that Maine could be second in the nation for student achievement if our students living in poverty achieved academically as well as our students who don’t qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.
When teaching isn’t a profession that can financially support a family, we as a state end up with a revolving door of new, young, single college graduates who try out teaching and leave for other professions. The cost of this teacher turnoverin the form of recruitment and professional development is estimated to be $2.2 billion nationwide each year.
As a teacher educator for over 20 years, I know the time it takes for even the brightest students to begin to master the complexities of teaching. As a parent, I know the cost of unsupported new teachers and the crisis of a lack of substitute teachers in our schools.
LD 1370 is a modest first step toward supporting the quality of our teaching force that is essential to the quality of our schools. Teachers need more preparation to meet the demands of our increasingly complex schools and a livable wage to be able to dedicate themselves to their chosen profession without having to take on additional work.
Flynn Ross is associate professor of teacher education and coordinator of the Extended Teacher Education Program (ETEP) at the University of Southern Maine.