Uncle Arne Wants You?

I’m all for making teacher pay more of an incentive and lever – both by paying more and paying differently, for instance differentiating along more dimensions than just years of service and degrees.  So I liked a lot in this recent NYT op-ed by Dave Eggers and Ninve Calegari,  But while topical and catchy, the lede is overly romantic, obscures some issues, and doesn’t make a lot of sense. Since it’s fast becoming the new blueberry myth it’s worth discussing.

The point on shared accountability is certainly right but the description of how the military changes is not.  After the Vietnam War the United States military took a  serious and unsparing look at its fighting force. The Marines, in particular, made a number of changes.  But all branches changed and as a nation we obviously went to an all-volunteer force.  The result is the highly professional, effective, and lethal force you see today.  There are some lessons there for public schools there (for instance how to differentiate roles, grow an effective and diverse leadership corps) but the fundamental one the military teaches us is that people matter a lot and there is not a lot to be gained from ducking the hard conversations about that.

7 Replies to “Uncle Arne Wants You?”

  1. Yes, of course we can have the teachers we want if we pay for it, but there’s strong resistance to this. Why?

    While we are in the midst of educational “reform” something else is happening, but it is camouflaged by the recession and getting little or no attention by the press. It is this:

    As the baby boomer teachers retire in droves, there are no more women without career options to take their places. Talk to professors at your local college and you’ll find that few people are preparing to be teachers. Very few. Also, it is interesting to note that few (any?) “reformers” are teachers or even teacher advocates. Common sense should suggest where this will take us.

    Up until the 1970s talented women often chose teaching as the most professional job they could get. Now, however, these women are choosing medicine, law and business, just like their male counterparts. When I think of all the people I know I can think of two people in their thirties who are teachers, but NO ONE in his or her twenties who has chosen teaching. The daughter of one teacher IS planning to teach “but she knows not to go into K-12 education” boasted her mother.

    Of course no one knows what the future will bring but I believe we face a severe shortage of qualified teachers in the next ten years. This can lead to either of two results: we will go back to what we did during the last teacher shortage and hire anyone “with a warm body” or we will find a way to attract and retain the type of professional we say we want. Statistics tell us that other advanced nations are opting for the latter strategy. If we want to be competitive in education, we’d better do it too.

  2. Linda: I agree with your points (above). That said, I do know some women (in their 30’s) who are teachers, which break down as follows: (1) Single woman who lives in a small southern town and can support herself on her own salary by living relatively frugally; (2) Married woman (with an older, high-salaried husband) who can pick and choose her teaching assignments and took time off after birth of her children; and (3) Married woman (married to another teacher) who is struggling with her husband to support their two children on their limited salaries. For all the options out there for today’s college-educated men and women, teaching is certainly not the most lucrative!

  3. Looks like it’s Eduwonk ducking the hard conversations here. The op-ed is about where we lay the blame and how we’re going to go about attracting and retaining teachers in a climate of low pay, high stakes and public humiliation.

    Sadly, your analysis of the state of our military is way off the mark and telling about your perspective on the teaching profession.

    Thankfully it was Eggers’ voice that got the ink and is spurring thoughtful analysis (more so than your piece) and meaningful conversations since publication.

  4. Messrs Eggers and Calegari are clearly wrong about teacher pay in the three countries mentioned. I lived and taught in South Korea for seven years, and the idea that a South Korean teacher makes 250 percent what an American teacher makes is ludicrous in the extreme. Singaporean teachers also make far less, those in Finland about the same as American teachers. These comparisons are often of ratios of what comparably educated professionals (doctors, lawyers, college grads, and so on) make vs. what teachers make in those countries compared with the same ratios in our country, where teacher incomes are far below the other professionals; but the explanation is in the very high wages of American professionals, not in the low salaries of American teachers.

  5. If you are going to make comparisons to the evolution of the all-volunteer military, it should be more comprehensive. Eggers and Calegari make a solid point on compensation.

    Also, as the military transitioned to a longer service force, there was more investment in training the force, investing more in equipment and systems, and in providing continuing education opportunities above and beyond military training.

    If we in K-12 education invested in professional development the way the military trains personnel, that would be a big step forward.

  6. Nice post on Eggers. I’m a huge fan of his—Zeitoun was among my favorites in the last year and HWOSG is among my all-time favorites. That said, thanks for calling him out on his use of a seriously flawed military-teacher analogy. You point out the grander examples that the military has set in implementing systemic changes in response to underperformance. There are also more basic flaws with his contrast of military and schools.

    For one, when results on the ground are not what we hoped, our military does all the things Eggers points out. But our military also continually reviews our soldiers’ performance, of which career path and compensation are then a function. What’s more, a huge portion of the ed reform investment is directed at giving teachers better tools and training, just like the military. As for incentives, teachers’ loudest leader, Randi Weingarten, continues to discount the value of incentives to teachers. And finally, sigh, I still have yet to hear any knowledgeable observer indiscriminately blame teachers—wouldn’t it be something if we could put these most base and rhetorical arguments (from both sides) behind us.

    I agree there is good stuff in this piece, but Eggers here has opted for the type of storytelling that misleads while purporting to educate. I’m disappointed in him though still a fan.

    Sorry—can’t standby when the military is used wrongly in any argument.

  7. I’m baffled by the idea that the current volunteer army somehow could serve as a model. The army currently only accepts volunteers with a high school diploma. If our public schools only accepted high school graduates as students, well, it would solve the dropout problem, but the kids outside the system would be stuck. The draft army (I was a member) was full of “duds” as we used to say, but compared to the public schools, it was an elite. The schools have to take everyone, and no one else does.

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