When Students Just Say No
When I was young, teaching, like nursing, was still largely a women’s job. It was one of the jobs where women were predominate, and so smart, capable women went into it for lack of alternatives where they would be accepted. But since women were rarely the primary breadwinners, and their incomes were secondary to the family, their pay was decent, but not great. After all, these were women, so whatever money they brought home was atop their husband’s. It was gravy, if you will.
Simultaneously, teachers were respected because education was respected. It was the way children could succeed in life, to do better than their parents and climb the ladder to success. Teachers were the conduit to this future and were appreciated and feared because of it. If a teacher told a parent that little Johnny was misbehaving, little Johnny could well expect to pay a price for his teacher’s disapproval, sometimes a punishment like being grounded. Sometimes, a swift smack across the backside. You didn’t piss off a teacher if you didn’t want to anger your parents. Even if the teacher was wrong, she was right. Parents did not question a teacher.
Much has changed since then, as Thomas Edsall explains.
Here are just a few of the longstanding problems plaguing American education: a generalized decline in literacy; the faltering international performance of American students; an inability to recruit enough qualified college graduates into the teaching profession; a lack of trained and able substitutes to fill teacher shortages; unequal access to educational resources; inadequate funding for schools; stagnant compensation for teachers; heavier workloads; declining prestige; and deteriorating faculty morale.
Pandemic issues aside, which exacerbated but clouded many of these problems, students are the worse for these problems.
Nine-year-old students earlier this year revealed “the largest average score decline in reading since 1990, and the first ever score decline in mathematics,” according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In the latest comparison of fourth grade reading ability, the United States ranked below 15 countries, including Russia, Ireland, Poland and Bulgaria.
And then there’s the mental health issue atop the educational issues, as students are suffering from an epidemic of mental illness, depression and anxiety, that they hadn’t suffered in the bad old days when they were learning more and better.
As an aside, while Ivies are busily trying to reinvent themselves to create diversity and inclusion from a sows ear, few talk about the GIGO problem. If students are doing poorly in elementary education, by what magic would they be expected to read at grade level when they enter college?
But now that the opportunities for women have exploded, it’s created a hole in the old profession where they once dominated.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of students graduating from college with bachelor’s degrees in education fell from 176,307 in 1970-71 to 104,008 in 2010-11 to 85,058 in 2019-20.
On the one hand, the pay has largely stagnated, although this varies greatly by locale, where some areas pay teachers quite handsomely (like Long Island, for example) and competition for jobs is fierce, while others go begging for qualified teachers. And this, of course, raises the issue of “qualifications,” a sore point in a profession that the best and brightest women no longer wish to join and men still see as women’s work.
In a study of teachers’ salaries, Sylvia Allegretto, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, found a growing gap between the pay of all college graduates and teacher salaries from 1979 to 2021, with a sharp increase in the differential since 2010. In 1979, the average teacher weekly salary (in 2021 dollars) was $1,052, 22.9 percent less than other college graduates’, at $1,364. By 2010, teachers made $1,352 and other graduates made $1,811. By 2021, teachers made $1,348, 32.9 percent less than what other graduates made, at $2,009.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, schools have become a battle ground in the culture wars, where memorizing times tables takes a back seat to memorizing pronouns and gender identities.
White educators working in predominantly white school systems reported substantially more pressure to deal with politically divisive issues than educators of color and those working in mostly minority schools: “Forty-one percent of white teachers and 52 percent of white teachers and principals selected the intrusion of political issues and opinions into their professions as a job-related stressor, compared with 36 percent of teachers of color and principals of color.” In addition, they write, “Teachers (46 percent) and principals (58 percent) in schools with predominantly white students were significantly more likely than teachers (34 percent) and principals (36 percent) in schools with predominantly students of color to consider the intrusion of political issues and opinions as a job-related stressor.”
Curiously, the relative positions of educators and parents are at odds, giving rise to this “intrusion” of political issues into the schoolhouse. The cause and effect nature of these stresses seems to elude educators, who can’t understand why parents might take issue with the teacher selecting words like “genderfluid” for the spelling test.
Having had a long conversation with a dear friend not too long ago, it appears that there is another issue that failed to make the cut into Edsall’s analysis. Parents no longer value education as highly as they once did. Students no longer feel compelled to do as teachers instruct them. “They say ‘no,’” my friend explained.
I tell them to do the assignment, they stare at me and just say “no,” as in “you can’t make me.” And they’re right, I can’t. I can’t punish them. I can’t fail them. If I call their parents, a “good” parent will make excuses and an asshole parent will scream at me that it’s my fault because I must suck as teacher. These are usually the same parents who won’t read their kids, won’t help them with homework and are too busy having their own fun to give a damn how their kids are doing.
There is much going very wrong with education, and trying to fix it on the back end by handing out degrees to students who can’t spell their own name but know which boxes to check on an application and how to memorize insipid word salad isn’t going to work. While making the job of teaching sufficiently remunerative to attract smarter people will help, it’s only one of a great many serious problems that make little Johnny dumber. And no matter how good the teacher, no student can be taught if he can just say “no.”