Investing in teachers critical to improving schools

Elizabeth Birr Moje

The state of Michigan must spend more on the improvement of K-12 public education, with a particular focus on recruiting, training, supporting, and retaining teachers. Most people recognize that good teachers matter, and research bears out that belief. But teachers cannot enact high-quality instruction without compensation, training, support, and respect. At a minimum, teachers’ salaries must be commensurate with the role they play in our society and with the skill and preparation required to assume the responsibilities of teaching.

Teacher compensation has never been adequate to the task demanded, but has become an even greater issue as salaries have frozen at pre-recession levels. With the disbanding of pension programs, the weight of student loans, and the cost of achieving professional certification, many bright and committed individuals find the financial burden too high to pursue the profession. We must pay teachers more and provide them with the support necessary to sustain a lifetime in the profession.

The question of financial investment does not stop at teacher pay, however. Beyond the issue of basic compensation, Michigan needs to invest financially to provide the time, tools, materials, and professional development experiences that enable teachers to be successful. New teachers need more time in training. We cannot expect greatness from practitioners without the rigorous time in training that other professions, such as law and medicine, require. Moreover, we should support teachers throughout their careers. The state of Michigan must re-invest in teachers by supporting coherent, evidence-based programs of professional training and development.

Once in the field, teachers need time to plan lessons, assess learners, meet with and mentor students, and to develop prowess with curricula. Countries with high academic achievement provide their teachers with sustained non-teaching time for these purposes. Such a move will require bringing more teachers into the workforce and paying them adequately. The payoff, however, will be teachers who stay in the profession and hone their teaching skills.

Even when dedicated teachers give their own time to completing the demanding tasks of great teachers, many face uncertainty about which grades and curricula they will be teaching from year to year. Evidence suggests that it takes three years to teach a particular curriculum well, and yet many U.S. school settings are revolving doors of curriculum and classroom assignment. These changes and uncertainties are challenging for seasoned professionals and almost impossible for novices. This revolving door must be replaced with stability and continuity. Rather than increasing costs, stabilizing curriculum choices and teaching assignments saves money that can be re-directed to teacher support and development.

Teachers also need classrooms equipped with state-of-the-art, evidence-based tools and materials. Many teachers use their own modest income to augment teaching tools and supplies. Although reflective of the enormous commitment of Michigan teachers, excellent education systems cannot depend on the professional generosity of their employees.

Even if we commit the proper funding to support Michigan schools and teachers, we will not be successful until we change perceptions of the work of teaching. In a study carried out at Michigan State University, researchers examined letters written by teachers who have left the profession after years of service. The researchers found that teachers left because of the disrespect they felt, coupled with the inability to exercise professional judgment. This may be the most serious issue: Very few people want to work at unstable jobs for low pay, with little training or support, while experiencing a lack of community trust and respect. We cannot expect professional quality from people we do not treat as professionals.

What will it cost to invest in teachers appropriately? Recent education cost, or adequacy, studies show that Michigan’s proposed per-pupil investment is not enough to properly educate all our children, instead recommending per pupil expenditures between $8,667 and $9,590. These costs may be low, given the disinvestment in public education over the last 20 years, which requires an immediate re-investment of new resources. We must invest more for schools most at risk of failing their students, and we need to use the funds wisely, which includes investing in teachers in those settings.

This turnaround investment cannot come too soon. Our future depends on us making a commitment to educating, supporting, and compensating the best teachers now.

Elizabeth Birr Moje is dean of the School of Education at the University of Michigan.