By Michael Watkins, County Superintendent of Schools
On two separate occasions over the past few years I have had an opportunity to visit a number of schools in China. On each visit I came away impressed on many fronts. However, the one area that left an indelible imprint on me was the way in which they prepared, supported and respected the role of the classroom teacher. For in the debate on how to improve student achievement one truism stands out: attracting and retaining well-qualified people into the teaching profession is accepted as the essential prerequisite to raising educational standards. According to a recent study conducted by the University of Sussex which examined public attitudes of teaching as a career based on professional status, pay, trust and desirability of a teaching career, China had the highest levels of public respect out of the 21 countries surveyed. And on my visit it showed in the way in which teachers were treated by students, parents and political leaders, who over the past few decades have invested heavily in public education.
For much of the twentieth century, the United States led the world in high school and higher education participation and although our graduations rates are rising, the rest of the world is catching up. After decades of leading the world in higher education, the United States now ranks ninth in the proportion of young adults in college, and has fallen to 16th in degree attainment suggesting that while graduation rates are improving the drop-out rate remains far too high. And while only a few decades ago China was an agrarian, poverty- stricken and illiterate country their economic growth can be directly attributed to the realization that a highly educated society is the best way to move forward. That leads me to California’s teacher shortage.
According to the Learning Policy Institute teacher workforce trends have worsened in the past year “with especially severe consequences in special education, math, and science and significant threats in bilingual education”. With the demand for high-tech jobs showing no signs of abating, and the rise in the growing number of students in need of special education services (autism alone) and bilingual educational support, one can easily see that this is indeed a crisis, a crisis of our own making. Schools today operate on a shoe string budget severely affecting their ability to address these issues. Many college graduates no longer view the field of teaching as a viable path to middle class status. And for the most part they are right because the college debt that one would incur on a path to a teaching credential is significant and in all probability could not be repaid for many years. A beginning teacher salary is $45,000- about the same as getting a clear teaching credential at many colleges. All the while enrollment in teacher preparation colleges remains near historic lows.
The most profound observations and impressions that I came away with from my visits to China was that their leaders were focused, organized and determined to improve education in order to raise their people out of poverty (1 in 4 children attending California schools lives in poverty) and produce a highly skilled population to compete in a world economy.
For California to live up to its reputation as a beacon of futuristic thinking, a reinvestment in public education is needed now. It can take shape in any number of ways. I would start by creating policies that adequately compensate teachers as the professionals that they are; develop pathways into the teaching field as early as high school; subsidize prospective teachers going into the field; work with colleges to build the pipeline into teaching and allow teachers more time to collaborate and create as we now do in other professions. I am forever astounded at the H-1B visa program- a program category designed to help American businesses fill specialized positions-(and the lobbying efforts behind it). If businesses truly wanted to address the demand, they could make a greater investment in public education right here at home. Because we have treated public education as an after-thought of a democratic society with a foundation rooted in economic stability, we will not be able to solve this problem overnight. However, if we apply the resolve that other forward thinking countries have applied to this problem it will be a step in the right direction.
Published in the Aptos Times on September 27, 2017.