This week represents National Teacher Appreciation Week and if there was ever an appropriate time to applaud the efforts of our nation’s teachers, it is now. Considering the well-publicized and overwhelming reality of our nation’s fiscal concerns, there can be little doubt that the nation’s leadership faces an arduous task. The nation’s teachers, however, have arguably an even greater and more daunting task: preparing our youngest minds for the uncertain future that lies ahead of them.
A 2006 estimate by the U.S. Census Bureau states that there are 6.8 million teachers in the United States, approximately one-third of them teaching at the elementary, middle and high school levels (the other two-thirds teach at preschool, kindergarten or college levels). According to the Census Bureau report, teachers in Connecticut enjoyed the largest salaries in the nation, an average of $57,300, while teachers in South Dakota earned only $33,200 per year, the lowest in the nation. The national average teacher salary in 2006 was $46,800. Considering the importance of the job the nation’s teachers perform, such striking salary discrepancies are disappointing. The recent budget crises in most states don’t offer much hope that teacher salaries will improve in the near future.
Across the nation, teachers and even students are uniting to bring attention to the plight of America’s public schools in the face of drastic budget cuts. A Washington Times article from last month noted that Broward County, Florida is facing a $160 million deficit in its education budget, forcing that county’s school board to have some tough discussions which may lead to the cessation of several sports and other after-school programs. The same article describes how students in Richmond Heights, Ohio may be facing the possibility of no school sponsored sports at all in the next school year. In that school district, school sponsored band programs have already been eliminated. The situation in some public schools is so dire, according to the article, that one principal in Detroit “drew national attention after she called on parents to donate light bulbs and toilet paper to get them through the school year.”
A National Public Radio (NPR) report from April 15 notes that Los Angeles public schools are facing one of the biggest deficits in the nation (some $600 million) and are anticipating slashing thousands of jobs in the coming year. The school district, according to the article, is expecting to receive $360 million from President Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (also known as “the stimulus package”) but that falls tremendously short of the total needed just in Los Angeles public schools, not to mention the hundreds, possibly thousands, of millions that would be required to cover the deficits facing all the nation’s public school systems.
Even with the best intentions of law makers, including California’s Governor Schwarzenegger who claimed that 2008 would be the “Year of Education” in California, there is little doubt that teachers are forced to work harder with fewer resources. While America’s public schools are grossly underfunded, public policy researchers are calling for better preparation of our K-12 students for college in order that President Obama’s goal of “ensuring that America will regain lost ground and have the highest proportion of students graduating from college in the world by 2020.” Additionally, President Obama has expressed his intent that all Americans enroll in at least one year of higher education or job training. Looking at the trends in our higher population growth states, that level of preparation will be a tough challenge with the increasing percentage of students who do not speak English as a native language and the lack of funding for our teachers in order to work with students with language, culture, and other issues. The Pew Research Center estimates that seven-in-ten Hispanic students enrolled in US public schools, for example, speak a language other than English at home. The 2008 Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) “Challenge to Lead” report for Texas noted that that Texas could expect a 24 percent increase in K-12 student enrollment between 2006 and 2016 while the national average for the same time frame is only 14 percent. The growth in student enrollment in Texas will be predominantly from Hispanic populations and the Texas public school system will be required to find ways to integrate these students who may require additional attention to develop their English language skills.
Similar projections are estimated for California, Florida, and North Carolina, as well. A 2008 report published by the Pew Research Center notes that in 2006, Hispanic students accounted for nearly half of all public school students in California, up from 36 percent in 1990. According to the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE), California’s Hispanic population will continue to grow so that by the 2015 white non-Hispanic students will account for only 28.9 percent of the California’s public school graduates while Hispanic students will represent nearly half of California’s graduates. Between 2006 and 2016, according to SREB, Florida’s population is expected to increase by 20 percent, the highest growth rate in the region. The number of Hispanic students in Florida public schools is expected to increase from 19 percent to 36 percent between 2004 and 2018. In North Carolina, for the same time period, the number of Hispanic students in public schools is expected to increase from 3 percent to 33 percent.
Our nation’s colleges and universities need to update our teacher education curriculums to prepare teachers, principals, and counselors for some of the ongoing and future challenges. Technology can help, according to Clayton Christensen in his book, Disrupting Class, by leveraging the skills of skilled teachers with the multiple learning differences experienced in today’s classroom (see my August 2008 blog article for more information on this book and Christensen’s analysis of how technology can be used to develop student-centric teaching styles). We have to identify and instruct future teachers how to use the technologies. States and cities have to assure that funding for training and equipment purchases is available as well.
Given the current state of affairs vis-à-vis the nation’s economic situation, teachers today are without question forced to perform one of the most important public services with very few resources. This week and indeed all year, teachers, I commend you for your efforts and applaud your dexterity in managing bureaucratic stresses while continuing your focus on educating our nation’s young minds for the future. Thank you for all you do!