Why It’s Harder Than Ever To Teach In Public Schools

Teachers are overworked, underpaid, and under-appreciated. They’re also on the front lines for many public problems. Needless to say, they’re important. So what are the contributing factors to the massive problems teachers face, and their increasingly rough work conditions? The last 12 years have been one of the greatest upheavals in modern American education, and greatly contribute to how hard the job of a teacher is today. Let’s look at some of the biggest trends affecting teachers at work.

The Race to the Top

From the Department of Defense, to manufacturing giants, to Silicon Valley, everyone’s bemoaning the fact that American students are falling behind the students of other nations. Decreasing international rankings, changing skills needed for the workplace, and a shortage of technically skilled workers are all pressing issues for education, and sweeping legislation has tried to remedy the situation. In 2002 the “No Child Left Behind” act was signed into law, pushing for the impossible goals of 100% math and reading proficiency in America’s classrooms. A secondary goal of having 100% highly qualified teachers by 2006 is somewhat more achievable, but coupled with later legislation and increased reliance on high stakes testing, has made the jobs of teachers more stressful than ever. Several states have opted out of “No Child Left Behind.” But when the even more sweeping Common Core Curriculum was passed in 2010, the race was back on, with many academic standards raised by nearly a grade level.

Pressure on teachers can come in a variety of guises. Having to manage more stressed students is one of them. While students–panic stricken enough to garner media attention–are still having trouble adjusting to some pretty insane standards, being an educator has gotten harder as well.

An example of these potentially ill-advised new standards can be found in a 589-page document titled “Common Core Curriculum & Assessments”. This is part of New York’s fifth grade curriculum, and is mostly comprised of scripts like this one:

The teacher guides the class through the following…

Engaging the Reader: Thinking about the Words “Human” and “Rights” (10 minutes)

  • Make sure all learning targets are posted for students to see. Read the first learning target aloud:
    • “I can follow our class norms when I participate in a conversation.”
  • Talk about the importance of learning targets: They help students know what they are expected to learn and do during a lesson. Tell them you will be asking them to check in throughout the lesson about how they think they are doing with the learning targets.
  • Underline or circle the word follow. Ask students to give you synonyms for that word and write these under or over the word follow. Listen for: do what you’re supposed to, obey. Repeat for participate (do, join in, be part of).

The communal opening statement “I can follow our class norms when I participate in a conversation” is followed by further instructions evoking images of brainwashed classrooms in the second and third lessons:

  • Say: When words are repeated, that often indicates that they are important. Words about human rights are what today is all about.

Teachers can be graded down in classroom observations for not following the scripts. If that’s not enough– those are on the days when they’re only preparing for high stakes testing. A recent poll shows that 74% of teachers are worried that they will be held accountable for their test scores under Common Core before the system is even fully implemented. The second educational overhaul in 8 years yet again increases reliance on high stakes testing, pitting educator against educator, class against class, and school against school. All in the name of “keeping up” with other nations. Perhaps this is why half of American teachers quit within 5 years of starting their jobs.


Federal Education Spending is Misdirected

We talk about education a lot. Pass massive bills and spending initiatives. We spend more per student than most countries in the world. Yet it’s not paying off. Much of this state of affairs can be accounted for by inefficient and ill-targeted funding. As the following section will show, there are concrete services and targeted funding that can be focused on to enhance learning and make teachers’ lives slightly easier.

By one estimate, 40% of funding increases since the 1960’s have focused on special education. These increases correspond with the increased ability to screen for and help students with special needs, which is important.

But over the same period, teacher pay has gone from increasing yearly, to keeping pace with inflation, to remaining unchanged in the 2012 school year. Providing for special needs is necessary (and lawful), but at what expense? Only about 10% of the student population are special needs, and often to varying degrees. Meanwhile everyone is affected by teachers. It’s important to provide solid incentives for talented, creative, and smart potential educators to join the profession, continue to work, and develop professionally and educationally.

The United States has a greater percentage of school age children in poverty than most other developed nations. This means if equal access to education (and opportunity) is to be preserved that a variety of prerequisites that middle or upper class children take for granted, need to be available for children in need. The U.S. ranks 24th among 45 ranked nations for universal early childhood education. We’re ranked 131st out of 185 ranked nations (first off, it’s astounding the the U.S. has an excuse to be ranked 131st in anything with the resources at our disposal) in making sure poor women get good prenatal care, the likes of which would cut back on learning disabilities, and health problems for both students and mothers. And we could make sure that every school has the appropriate number of counselors, libraries, librarians, social workers, psychologists, and after school and summer programs. While that may seem like a lot, many of these are mandated by law.

Russia spends less than one third of what the United States spends per child. Their literacy rate is higher (99.4% compared to 99%), and their test scores are comparable. Russia scores one point higher in Math, and within ten points in Science (with scores in the 400-600’s range, ten points isn’t that big of a deal) on international tests. While student services are without a doubt lacking in Russia, it’s obvious that our educational spending could go much farther if properly targeted.


The Increased Privatization of Public Education

Education is a public service. It’s a career path chosen by those deeply touched by their teachers, and wanting to give back. But education is also a big business, and by shying away from calling it one we do a disservice to ourselves when trying to make informed education policy decisions. 7.8% of America’s GDP is spent on education. While 80% of spending is made by federal, state, and local governments, an increasingly larger amount of spending is effectively controlled by private entities.

Every public school student in America is essentially a surrogate for government funds to the tune of close to $10,000 a year. For primary and secondary education, a student attending school in one school district is a check for $120,000 from local, state, and Federal government to the school district. The range may vary, with New York spending the most per student — at $19,552/year–and Utah spending the least, at $6,206/year. With 49.5 million public school students, that’s a gold mine for businesses.


Charter schools are funded primarily with government funds (currently at about 61% of what is spent per student in normal public schools), yet often claim to be private corporations when taken to court. Though any child may attend a charter school, they are often set up in locations where parents can augment per student spending with definitions, effectively only serving wealthier students.

In Los Altos (CA), a wealthy town in Silicon Valley, a charter school asks for $5,000 donations per child, effectively acting as a private school subsidized by government funds. For a town whose median household income was $144,000+ in 2011 (nearly 3 times California’s median household income), this is a blatant misuse of public funds by private entities.

While there are 5,700 charter schools in the nation– many of which do serve students well– Charter schools often represent a manipulation of federal funding by the 5% of schools in the nation that exist in areas with enough organizational power and money to subsidize them with private donations. Meanwhile teachers at schools that are in need lack programs for the arts, libraries, or counselors. This may not affect every teacher in America, but the misdirection of funds from where they are most needed is fast becoming the new normal.

Schools are One-Stop Shops for Public Services

Public services help teachers tackle problems that can get in the way of learning. But tackling the wide range of student, family, and community issues also adds to the complexity of teachers jobs. Accommodating all sorts of aid through screenings, separate lesson plans, scheduling, and so forth have led many to note the extent to which teachers are on the front lines of the issues that plague our families, communities, and country. Here are some of the variety of services offered in public schools today:

Counseling: In most large public high schools, counselors will only spend about 10% of their time counseling students about college. Due to overwhelming caseloads for school counselors, public high schools are losing their efficacy as a path to higher education. While an optimal student-counselor ratio is 250 to 1, the national average is 460 to 1, and even higher in states like California (where the ratio is 1000 to 1).

[11]Social Work: School social workers provide a vital link for students between home, school, and the broader community. In past days social workers were most concerned with child abuse and truancy. Today social workers play a vital role in special education, attendance, helping students receive resources (medical, clothing, substance abuse, counseling, housing, tutoring), developing social skills in children, helping to address personal student needs, and many other concerns.

Psychologists: School psychologists provide a crucial link between parents, administrators, special educators, and psychiatric services. One primary role involves working with parents and administrators to target why exactly a student is struggling in school. Other roles can include working with family and students to screen and provide treatment for psychological problems.

Special Educators: Before the “Education for All Handicapped Children Act” of 1975, only one in five children with disabilities were accommodated at school. Under the more sweeping “Individuals with Disabilities Act” of 1990, more than 6 million children with special needs have come to be accommodated in special needs classrooms, or their normal grade-level classroom.

While the previous public services also help teachers by tackling problems that could get in the way of learning, the fact that schools are tackling a wide array of public issues also means that teachers must make plans to accommodate a wide range of student and community issues.

It’s not an easy time to be a teacher. But for many the career is still a calling. Through the high stakes testing, the anxiety-ridden students, and the mismanaged education funding that never makes it to normal classrooms, there’s still the same bond between teachers and students. It’s also an exciting time for teaching–with the explosion of learning technologies online, and easier access to college and graduate level coursework. In a rapidly changing world and workplace, good teachers are more needed than ever. Will you be one?


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  11. http://educationbythenumbers.org/wp-content/uploads/Screen-Shot-2013-12-03-at-12.12.23-PM.png
  12. http://educationbythenumbers.org/wp-content/uploads/Screen-Shot-2013-12-03-at-12.14.21-PM.png
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  17. http://www.usnews.com/education/articles/2010/09/10/a-numbers-game-for-school-counselors
  18. http://www.dpi.state.nc.us/studentsupport/socialwork/
  19. http://sullivan.mpls.k12.mn.us/what_does_a_school_social_worker_do_2
  20. https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=64
  21. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Individuals_with_Disabilities_Education_Act
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  25. http://www.forbes.com/sites/carrielukas/2012/08/07/lets-make-education-big-business-with-profit-loss-and-high-pay-for-top-performers/

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