The Obama/Duncan Plan for Higher Education

Today I was thinking a lot about the Obama administration’s plan to churn out more math and science teachers in the next decade.  I call it the Obama/Duncan Plan.  Now, I haven’t checked on this yet, but I will bet that there are plenty of undergraduate students in math and science education programs to meet the needs of middle and high schools throughout the country.  The problem is that these people may teach for a year or two (if at all) before they are snatched up by the business sector.  No matter what the economy is doing, teachers get paid poorly for the education levels they have achieved.  You can reduce interest or forgive payment on student loans all you want if a math or science education major actually teaches.  However, that will not keep these people in their jobs.  Why?  Money.

In most modern nations–and especially in developing nations–teachers are both respected and well-paid.  In the U.S., a teacher can be one step down from God and still not have the deserved respect for an extremely difficult job.  If you are not a teacher or postsecondary instructor, imagine having 30 ten-year-olds for six or seven hours a day, all at the same time.  Teachers have to get all the children listening and working together with a learning purpose or goal in mind, while maintaining the peace between two sworn enemies, soothing a bunch of chronic complainers, patiently listening to  three or four “goody two shoes,” enticing at least one student who sits in the back of the room and challenges the teacher to teach him (or her), make certain that students are improving their reading, writing, and arithmetic skills as well as learning how to take standardized tests, and modeling how to behave appropriately with each other and with the teacher.  Five days a week, at least 40 weeks a year, year after year.

Could you do that job?  Or let’s look at the high school level.  Imagine teaching the same thing to five classes a day.  The high school teacher has the same difficulties as the teacher of 10-year-olds, but the high school teacher sees his/her students for 45 to 50 minutes each day, and the kids are a lot bigger.  Additionally, the teacher has to remember where each class left off in discussions, whether a particular activity was adequately covered in all of the classes, and whether–by the fifth class–the intended information was actually delivered to the students.  If a teacher is expected to teach the exact same material to all his/her classes, the teaching can become pretty stale by the end of the day, even if the teacher practices cooperative learning techniques.

That’s what classroom life is like for most teachers.  At the end of the day, their work is not finished.  It is often in the evenings, after the needs of their own families have been met, that the teacher once again sits down and plans for the next day’s classes, or for all of the following week.  In addition, any papers that need reading and correcting are done in the evening, as the bit of non-teaching time that is build into their day is too short to score five sets of multiple choice tests.  On top of this, both the state and the school administration expect the teacher to take continuing education and professional development classes, usually on their own time, not the school’s time.  Teachers often use their summer “vacations” to do that, and to plan out their teaching strategies for the following year.  Teachers are not paid for the summer.  However, they are often given the option to be paid only during the 10 months they are actively teaching, or to have their pay spread out across 12 months so that they can manage their income better.

More often than not, teachers are constantly looking for new ideas and new items that their students might find unique and interesting.  If you have ever gone on a social outing with someone who is a teacher, you are guaranteed to hear, at least once, “Oh, this would be perfect to share with my students!” or “This will make a great anecdote when I teach (fill in the topic)!”  If you haven’t shared a social event with a teacher, try it.  See if an entire evening or day trip can go by without a single reference to something that students might like.

People who teach for more that three years are teachers first and everything else second.  That is why they are willing to accept pay that is lower than they are worth to the business world.  However, when math and science teachers see that they can make double what they are making if they work for a company instead of a school, many of them think about how much better the extra money will be for their family.  So, they take the job outside of teaching, and another hole in the math/science teaching sector opens up.

The Obama/Duncan plan to supplement higher education is certainly commendable, but it is not realistic in the long run.  We will have a steady progression of science and math teachers cycling through schools just to have their student loans forgiven.  Money given directly to higher education institutions will not necessarily be used wisely to shore up the education departments and graduate schools.  Whatever plan eventually comes out of the Oval Office will need to be carefully tailored with all environmental variables considered.  So far, this administration has not shown me that they are capable of covering all the territory on any issue, much less on education–specifically higher education.  I will continue to believe that more money must go into preK-12 education–much more than the amount of money going to postsecondary institutions.  From a feasibility standpoint, the better grade school education becomes, the less money will need to go into postsecondary institutions.  It’s simply a more sensible investment.  

Meanwhile, the children cannot wait a minimum of 4 years before the first graduates of the Obama/Duncan postsecondary education plan are ready to teach.  For three years. Or until their student loans go away.  And the lure of much higher salaries draws them away from teaching…


2 thoughts on “The Obama/Duncan Plan for Higher Education

  1. Hello, Richard. I was very interested in your comments, especially about solutions that I offered. I don't see any in my post, so I'm wondering what you are addressing. Could you be more specific, please?
    Every statement I make in my posts are supported with data from the U.S. Department of Education's databases. These contain a wealth of information on students, schools, teachers, families, and any other environment associated with education. In addition, I keep up with the research on education, as any professional educator–whether at the grade school or postsecondary level–ought to do. But that was part of my graduate school training 40 years ago. Educational research is part of what I keep up with; I also teach it.
    Regarding the cycling of teachers through schools, this is precisely what happened in the late 1960s and 1970s, when portions of student loans were forgiven if college graduates went into teaching for two–or maybe it was three–years. As soon as the loans were forgiven, many teachers left for the private sector. Most of those teachers were mathematicians or scientists. It is naive to believe that this exodus would not recur.
    Nowhere in this or any post on my blog sites do I make any statements regarding the quality of the teachers who remain in education versus those who are wooed into industry. Facts are facts. The majority of science and math education majors end up in the business sector. Period. As for private school teachers, please show me where I state or imply that private school teachers are worth less or more than public school teachers.
    The issue is this: PreK-12 education needs help. Let's use a little logic here: Grade schools are not improving, but we have plenty of universities that are putting fresh teachers into these schools every year (many, by the way, leave within the first two years). The new teachers practice what they have been taught. If no significant, measurable improvement is made in grade school student progress, then we should find the mismatch between postsecondary pre-service teacher training and real school situations. This is not the intent of the money infusion proposed by the Obama/Duncan team. Their proposal puts more teachers into postsecondary education programs as a whole, but these programs may not give appropriate training to future teachers. Very few teachers are "naturals." Instead, they are trained. The best teachers keep up with the education literature and attend professional development courses to become even better. Also, it is a solid business practice to evaluate problems before pouring money into a project that may not be successful. To date, no such assessment has been done–unless it hasn't been published yet.
    Re: animal learning models, contributions to learning by Pavlov, Bell, Skinner continue to be taught to pre-service teachers as part of the historical basis for current teaching thought, theory, and models. Because students come in myriad aptitudes, talents, achievement levels, and personalities, good teachers have what I call a teacher's bag of tricks. They have a "standard" set of teaching skills; then they have the ones that are applied as needed, either with particular students, or even whole classes. The tools come from textbooks and education-related sites. Fresh ideas help them learn how to deal with unusual class situations. These teachers are the ones who teach for many more than two or three years. They are the ones who view the practice of teaching as a profession.

  2. Damn, you almost talked me into becoming a high school math/science teacher! Well, at least until I could benefit from those "much higher salaries" you mentioned. Lol!

    Seriousy though, it appears that your alternative suggestion is to pay all teachers more. Or is it that we should pay just math and science teachers more? I can certainly appreciate the former. Teachers in general ARE underpaid. Unfortunately, there are quite a few willing to work for private institutions for even less, often because they don't have the proper credentials to qualify for public institutions. That doesn't mean they're crappy teachers, just that they haven't jumped through all the appropriate hoops. How do you propose dealing with that issue? I ask that especially in light of the fact that you seem opposed to merit pay — or is it just that you disagree with what is an appropriate definition of who qualifies? It seems to me that the problem is further compounded by your claim that high school math and science teachers are successfully wooed away from teaching in favor of more lucrative careers in the private sector. Pardon me for asking, but what exactly are your criteria? And whatever they are, if they differ too much from existing market pressures, can you realistically expect your opinion to carry the day? I haven't preserved too much from the old days of animal learning, but one thing that still rings true is: start where the behavior is at. And frankly, it doesn't seem that your suggestions even begin to address the existing market pressures.