Moving beyond fake education debates to focus on student success: Time to deal with lagging teacher pay, shortages, and rising stress among students and teachers

There are a great deal of systemic issues plaguing the public education system today that require systemic solutions. To do so, the nation needs to move beyond fake education debates and find ways to address the teacher pay gap, one cause of worsening shortages in education, and the growing stress among students and teachers, which has only been exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic.

That was the consensus among a recent gathering of parent and educator experts, focused on what matters most for student success this school year and into the future.

A recent Economic Policy Institute (EPI) webinar featured Becky Pringle, President, National Education Association; Randi Weingarten, President, the American Federation of Teachers; Ailen Arreaza, Co-Director, ParentsTogether; and Heidi Shierholz, President, EPI. During the virtual discussion, they focused on how we can come together to ensure student success in the classroom and beyond.

Below we include excerpts of their perspectives, including solutions that will drive student success. (You can also view the full webinar here.)

Heidi Shierholz

“How much less do teachers make than their peers? That pay penalty was large in 1979 at 7.1%, but it more than tripled to 23.5% over the following four-plus decades. So young people who may have gone into teaching knowing they would make just 7% less than their peers may understandably be unlikely to go into teaching when they know they will make 23.5% less than their peers.

“This problem is poised to get worse if nothing is changed. There’s been a large drop in the number of people completing teacher preparation programs over the last 15 years.

“What can be done?

  • Most immediately, COVID relief and federal relief and recovery funds, which include a substantial amount of aid to states and localities, can and should be used to raise pay for teachers and other education staff so that schools can attract and retain the staff that they need.
  • In the longer run, we need to change school funding so that, among other things, teachers and other education staff can be paid fairly.
  • Public-sector collective bargaining should be expanded in places where it’s restricted. Unions help bolster job quality for teachers and advocate for adequate school resources so teachers can teach effectively.”

Becky Pringle

“When we talk about a 24% wage gap for teachers, it’s gotten worse but it’s not new. So, as we think about the why, you know the systemic issues around the why, the fact that this is a predominantly overly super majority female profession, we can’t ignore that.

“When we think about the rising costs of higher education and the fact that we’re asking our young people to choose a profession that already has a wage gap and saddle them with all kinds of debt, especially for our Black and brown and indigenous students of color who we know don’t have that generational wealth that would allow them to choose teaching and stay in teaching.

“It’s not one issue with one solution. There are things that we can take steps on right away, but we’ve got to do it from a systemic place and we have to acknowledge that it is our shared responsibility, to make sure when we say every student is excelling, and everyone knows it; every educator is excelling, and everyone knows it; every school is excelling, and everyone knows it.

“That’s the story I would want them to tell so that we work toward those solutions. We know it has to be systemic, and it has to be sustained, and we have to collaborate to do it.”

Randi Weingarten

“There’s a whole bunch of investment things that can be done, but at the root what we need to do right now is reestablish relationships, confidence, and a sense of joy; and I don’t mean going back to a status quo. I mean a sense that people can work together, play together, learn together, want to be in school together, trying to create that hope that is the antidote to anxiety, that hope and transparency, which is the antidote to anxiety and to trauma.

“That’s why we have a mental health crisis right now. We had one before COVID, but the isolation exacerbated it. That’s why really being intentional about relationship building is really important.

“I’ll give you an example of one of the things we’re doing in Medina, Ohio. It’s simple but it’s pretty awesome. A teacher came up with this idea where she has had her students, 7th and 8th graders, read inspirational books. Some of them were about faith, and some of them were about other things. The adult reads the same book, the kids read the same book. They talked to each other.

“What’s happening now is that it has rippled through this whole Medina School District, a rural and pretty conservative school district. They are really doing all the social emotional work. As others are saying, ‘we don’t want teachers to talk to each other or talk to kids about emotional work,’ here you have this really conservative school district where they’re doing it.”

Ailen Arreaza

“When it comes to schools, parents are really concerned about adequate funding, and they’re concerned about safety and security in schools.

“You’ll notice that I didn’t say anything about banning books or censoring what teachers are talking about in the classroom. That’s really not what parents care about. We think that is a strategy that is being used to try to divide and distract parents at a time when parents are feeling really stressed and anxious.

“It’s been two years of COVID, closed schools, and economic insecurity. So these made-up controversies about book bans and censoring history are just a ploy to try to get us distracted from the things that really matter.

“What parents are telling us that they’re feeling anxious about is how to provide for their families. The solutions that they need are things like expanding the child tax credit, for example, and adequately funding schools, and having their kids feel safe in schools.”