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'American Teacher' Argues for Increasing Salaries

"American Teacher" argues the best prescription for the United States' ailing public schools is paying the educators a better salary.
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Think teaching is a highly respected profession? Think again. A recent ranking of the top 200 jobs in America, based on such criteria as income, physical demands and stress, had public school teaching at a dismal 100 — and nearly 10 spots below teacher's aide.

"Our society doesn't value the teaching profession as it should," says Ninive Calegari, one of the producers of American Teacher, a documentary film opening around the country beginning at the end of this month. "We tolerate incredible turnover and bad salaries. People think the job is easy because good teachers make it look easy."

American Teacher is, in essence, a cri de coeur about the dismal state of public teaching in America. Told through the stories of four teachers battling bad salaries, overcrowded classes, 65-hour work weeks and a general lack of respect from administrators, students and parents, the film is also chock-a-block with statistics that paint a sad portrait of a system in disarray:

• With school budgets in tatters, 90 percent of public school teachers spend their own money on supplies.

• One-fifth of teachers in urban schools quit every year. Nearly one-half quit before the fifth year.

• Low salaries force one-third of teachers to take outside jobs. Factor in tutoring, and more than 60 percent of teachers earn outside income.

• At one time, most teachers were men. In order to keep salaries down, women were recruited into the profession. Now only 16 percent of teachers are men.

• Among industrialized nations, the U.S. ranks 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math.

How did things get so bad?

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Calegari, a veteran teacher who co-authored, with Dave Eggers and others, the book Teachers Have It Easy: The Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of America's Teachersbelieves part of the reason is the overabundance of women in the profession keeping the salaries down (as mentioned above), and the perception that teaching is little more than babysitting. Calegari says people don't see teaching as a real profession, and teachers are unable to articulate and communicate how important their job is.

American Teacher, which was directed by Vanessa Roth and narrated by Matt Damon — whose mother is a professor of early childhood education — doesn't forget to talk about countries that do it right. Finland, Singapore and South Korea, which rank at the very top in the reading, math and science polls, all recruit teachers and pay for teacher training. They offer good salaries, a professional work environment and high cultural respect. It's no surprise, then, that in these countries teachers tend to stay in their jobs, and there's a low turnover rate. In Finland, in fact, teaching is the most highly regarded profession.

Good pay seems to be at the core of American Teacher's prescription for our own educational ills (and the film is a fruit of The Teacher Salary Project). The film points out that it's not so much beginning salaries that are at issue — although in many cases they're not all that great — but ending salaries that tend to be noncompetitive with other professions. One Texas middle school history teacher profiled in the movie, for example, started at a salary of $27,000. After 15 years on the job, he is making only $54,000. A family man, he works part-time at a second job to make ends meet. What this means in the bigger picture is that a lot of top talent is not attracted to the profession because of salary considerations.

"Raising the salaries is a tipping point that will influence everything else," says Calegari. "You want to raise the level of the profession so a high-quality person finds the job desirable, and you want to keep those who are already in."

Calegari recognizes that the current budget crisis, whether on the city, state or national level, has hit school systems hard, but, she says, "We have to ask Americans to ask their legislators to put their arms around education budgets. I believe that within school budgets as they are, we can teach people that the teacher is the most important component, and we can restructure budgets to value teachers over other things."

American Teacher notes that a few school systems have already gone this route — Denver and Greensboro, N.C., have hiked teacher salaries and the result is fewer teachers have dropped out and graduation rates have gone up. But American Teacher is not just focused on the financial bottom line.

"I want people to have a deeper appreciation for how sophisticated [teaching is]," says Caligari, "and how connected it is for the future of this economy and this democracy."

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