A friend whose husband is a teacher and who has three kids in California public schools, recently posted on Facebook the following quotation from President John F. Kennedy, asking, “Why are we still dealing with this 50 years later?”
“Modern cynics and skeptics… see no harm in paying those to whom they entrust the minds of their children a smaller wage than is paid to those to whom they entrust the care of their plumbing.”
My late wife Sandy was also a high school teacher, as is my prospective brother-in-law and West Point classmate, Trey Sayes. I have even taught myself for several years, albeit at the post-graduate level when the students were no longer children. When our own kids were in school, Sandy & I were strong supporters of their teachers and heavily involved in school activities. Combined with my own experiences as a student, I have studied under, worked with or observed many teachers over the years. As a result of those experiences, I have a great admiration for the hard-working, dedicated and excellent teachers who educated me (see Note 1 below) and my children and who helped us all become useful, productive adults.
That said, the explanation for the observation in this Kennedy quote is quite simple, if perhaps a bit cynical — it’s the law of supply and demand. We require, as a society, far more teachers than plumbers (or, for that matter, most other professions). It is an undeniable economic reality that those who perform a less common service — particularly one which, when needed is needed “now” and which requires a specific skill set that few people have obtained — will command higher compensation than those who perform a more common and less demanding service. Hence, plumbers make more than teachers. Which is not to say that the service provided by plumbers is more important to society, long- term, than that provided by teachers, but the immediate need to restore interrupted water service or repair a damaged waste-disposal system can be, in the moment, very pressing indeed.
There is another consideration as well, which is based in part on hard-earned personal experience and in part on information obtained second-hand (largely through the media). People in general and I in particular would never tolerate in a plumber, or other such professions as also command higher wages than do teachers, the levels of incompetence that we tolerate among of teachers of our children.
This is a human distortion of the law of the jungle, the survival of the fittest. Because we need so many teachers, it is unavoidable that we will be able to hold the profession as a whole only to a lower standard of competence than one in which the number of practitioners is smaller. Even the less fit are able to “survive” as teachers simply because of the demand for large numbers of them.
In general, if someone hires a professional, such as a plumber (or a lawyer!) who does a poor job, there are several readily available remedies: non-payment for the services, avoiding that professional in the future and even suing for damages. There is no such recourse against an incompetent teacher — a child assigned to that teacher’s class almost certainly will have to remain in it for the entire school year. And that child’s younger siblings may also end up in that teacher’s class in the future, with little or no opportunity for the parent to avoid the assignment . Most parents, in fact, would have no way of even knowing that a particular teacher’s performance is sub-par.
All too often, school administrators are reluctant or even outright unwilling to take action against or even help to improve the performance of teachers under their supervision. The atmosphere in many schools appears to be adversarial — administrators and teachers against parents and students — rather than cooperative. And don’t even get me started on the stupidity of some of the current policies being devised by administrators and implemented by teachers (a subject on which I have been compiling examples and regarding which I will blog in the not too far distant future).
Finally, teacher’s unions have evolved (or perhaps devolved, depending on your perspective) into organizations one of the primary functions of which is to protect incompetent teachers from any consequence for their failings. The single most politically powerful organization in the State of California today is the California Teacher’s Association. A 2010 report by the California Fair Political Practices Commission revealed that political contributions by the CTA over the preceding 10 years ($211.8 million) were nearly double the #2 contributor (the California State Council of Service Employees with $107.4 million) and more than Chevron, AT&T, Philip Morris and the Western States Petroleum Association combined.
See here for the full report:
Which makes me wonder, if teachers’ salaries remain unacceptably low, compared to other professions, to what end is the CTA expending this incredible amount of money, the primary source of which is union dues from their underpaid constituents? (See Note 2 below.)
Note 1: My Lindenhurst High School track coach and physical education teacher, Carl Greenhut, had a particularly profound effect on my life. I wrote an earlier blog post in which I described his influence on my life here:
Of course, I had other teachers who greatly influenced my life as well:
One of my high school English teachers, Miss Angela Hughes, greatly encouraged my analytical and writing skills and was the primary motivator for my subsequent addiction to putting my thoughts on paper (and now, the internet).
My fifth grade teacher at Edward W. Bauer Elementary School, Mrs. Muriel Giese, engendered my life-long love of books and reading.
At West Point, one of my English teachers, Col. Jack L. Capps, helped hone my writing skills and motivated me to excel in the subject. Ultimately, this enabled me to achieve my only note of particular distinction at the academy — receiving the Colonial Daughters of the Seventeenth Century Award as Honor Graduate (first in my class) in the Department of English.
Note 2: As of 2009, the president of the CTA was being paid more than $200,000 per year, roughly triple the average California teacher’s salary. And that doesn’t even take into consideration the generous benefits paid to CTA staff, including for the union president use of a home valued at more than a million dollars. For a further discussion of the uses to which the CTA puts California teachers’ dues, see: