Learning From the Nursing Profession in the New Teacher Strike Era
Little wonder the teachers are striking. The only question is why it took them so long. There are the stories about teachers unable to keep their families above the poverty line without working two or three jobs. And stories about the states in which teachers have not had a raise in over a decade. The last time this happened—that is, the last time teachers' pay slipped further and further behind that of those in other occupations requiring a similar amount of education—the teachers in the NEA formed their own union and those in the AFT became militant.
We should be thanking the teachers for striking. For some time now, applications to teachers colleges have been falling and competent teachers have been bailing out before reaching retirement age, producing a perfectly predictable shortage of teachers. State legislatures have been responding to those shortages by waiving the already appallingly low standards for getting a license to teach and issuing what amount to licenses to would-be teachers still in teachers college, ushering in a wave of teachers for our children who are—by any measure you might care to offer—unqualified for the job.
Which induces in me a very strong case of cognitive dissonance. We watch zombie-like as the quality of our teacher corps declines, month by month and year by year, while carrying on a national conversation about education reform that is not addressed in any serious way to the issue of teacher quality. One might have hoped that these strikes would change that, that they might at last have forced the conversation we so obviously need to have about what it will take to reverse course, to staunch the flow of our best teachers out of the schools, to attract our share of the best and brightest high school students into teaching, and provide the high-quality preparation, early support and solid career opportunities that are common place in the world's top-performing education systems. But I see no sign of that, at least not yet.
There are many who will tell you that the issues of teacher quality and teacher compensation are unrelated, that teachers do not choose an occupation but a vocation, that they are not in it for the money. And there are also those who say that teaching is actually only a part-time job and, in any case, the generous retirement benefits compensate for the poor pay.
It is certainly true that a large number of teachers choose teaching because they want an occupation that enables them to make a contribution to society and to the young people they teach. But teaching is not the only occupation that can be described that way and many others pay more. The reality is that, when many of today's teachers were choosing an occupation, in the decades following the Great Depression, many parents were telling their daughters that teaching was a great choice because: 1) teaching was one of the most recession-proof of all occupations (after all, no matter how bad it got, the kids would still have to go to school), so, if their husband lost his job, at least one member of the family would have one; 2) you could be at home when the kids came home from school and when they were on vacation; and 3) although the pay was low, the retirement benefits were good (a strong argument when many of their husbands would have no retirement benefits at all). In these years, teachers often were among the most-educated people in their communities. Not only did they enjoy the status that came with being among the most-educated but, because they were looked up to by parents who typically had less education, parents let their children know that they were expected to treat their teachers with respect. What clinched the deal was the fact that young women with college degrees were largely limited in their career choices to teaching, secretarial work and nursing. Of these three choices, teaching required more education (and therefore conferred more status), paid more, offered more security and provided more time with one's children.
It has been all downhill from there. Teachers' compensation has slipped further and further behind that of occupations requiring a similar amount of education. A greater and greater proportion of the population has a college degree or more education, often in higher-status higher education institutions, so the relative status of teachers has declined. Parents have less respect for teachers and communicate that to their children, who also have less respect for their teachers. As unfunded liabilities for teachers pensions have ballooned, states have sought ways to reduce pensions. When the 2008-09 recession hit, the myth of teaching as a recession-proof occupation exploded. Because the recession was touched off by a precipitous fall in housing prices and therefore in local tax collections, teachers were among the hardest hit by the recession. And then, the icing on the cake, when test-based teacher accountability became national public policy, teachers quickly came to feel that not only had they lost the respect of the community they once had, but were in fact being held accountable for perceived failures of the public education system over which they had no control.
By that time, virtually every feature of teaching that had made it attractive as an occupation to college-educated women in the decades following World War II had gone up in smoke. Fortunately for young women, their opportunities were no longer confined to secretarial work, nursing and teaching. What was good for them, however, was a disaster for the schools.
Was this trajectory for teachers and teaching the inevitable result of the opening up of other opportunities in the professions for women? The answer is no. We have only to look at nursing to see that it might have been very different.
Those of you who read my blog a couple of weeks ago will recall that I described the five weeks I spent in a trauma hospital and then in a rehabilitation hospital following a bad accident in which I damaged my spinal cord. One evening, a new nurses' aide came into my room and we talked for a while. He appeared to be in his late 30s. He told me that he had grown up in Connecticut, graduating from Connecticut College with a degree in political science. But he could not find any work in his field. He wound up in Boston in a non-degree program in mechanical engineering and got a job doing engineering drawings for a firm that secured some lucrative contracts to install air conditioning systems in several of the new buildings being built in the new waterfront development district in Boston. But, when the 2008-09 recession hit, he was laid off. He became an EMT and discovered that he really liked the work and this led him to nursing.
But he discovered that becoming a nurse was not so easy. Before he could even apply to begin a nursing program, he would have to pass nine courses, some in mathematics and biology, some in other subjects. So, he became a nurses' aide and a student. It took him three years to complete the courses he needed to pass just to get to the starting line. He discovered that he was one of more than 800 people applying for admission to the program he wanted to get into. Only 47, he said, were admitted. Of those, he said, he was one of only seven who successfully completed the three-year, full-time program. That was after passing an exam which took an entire day. An attorney friend of mine who is married to a woman who recently passed this exam said that the nursing exam is harder than the bar exam he had to take.
Three of the five nurses I interviewed in the first of the two hospitals I was in during my recovery and rehabilitation told me that their mothers were teachers and all of them had advised their children—my nurses—not to go into teaching. They said that they made more than the teachers in their community but not a lot more. But they loved their work. They took enormous pride in that work and felt that they enjoyed the respect of their community both for their expertise and for the contribution they were making. They described an occupation which, unlike teaching, offered a real career progression, with more compensation, authority and responsibility as they demonstrated more expertise. No one was holding nurses responsible for the perceived failures of modern medicine. No one was talking about reducing their benefits or trying to identify the worst nurses so they could fire them. Instead of being trained in institutions widely perceived as very easy to get into, they could take pride in knowing that they had been admitted to programs that were very hard to get into. Instead of being in programs that were widely perceived as very undemanding, they could take pride in knowing that the programs were really tough and the final exams even tougher. It all added up to an occupation that admitted the best of a large field of candidates into training and only let a few of them enter the profession, with all the pride of accomplishment and status in the community that confers.
Could we do this for our teachers? Of course. Will we? Only if we view making up some of the lost ground on compensation as only the beginning of what must be done to make teaching as attractive as nursing in an age in which young women's choices now go far beyond nursing, secretarial work and teaching.
And that's the point, isn't it? Some of the readers of this blog will point out that there are shortages of teachers and will caution against raising standards for teachers on the grounds that we do not want to make the existing shortage even worse. But these two shortages are not the same. In effect, the shortage of teachers has been caused by a long slide in the standards for teachers, which has led to a steady slide in teachers' standing in our society and a lack of support for raising teachers' compensation, which makes it even harder to get great candidates—or in some cases any candidates at all—for teachers jobs, producing a steadily worsening downward spiral.
The shortage of nurses comes not from lowering standards but from raising them, producing an environment in which nursing is attracting a bigger and bigger share of our best and brightest, which justifies higher wages and makes it possible for the institutions to increase the rigor of preparation programs and licensure standards. Maybe if we want for teaching what we have for nursing, we ought to raise both the compensation and the standards for teaching. They go hand in hand.