High cost of low teacher salaries—and low writer expectations

The High Cost of Low Teacher Salaries,” an op-ed by Dave Eggers and Nínive Clements Calegari in today’s New York Times, is being hyped by social media outlets. As the title suggests, the article focuses on the importance of raising teacher salaries as “the first step is to make the teaching profession more attractive to college graduates” (paragraph 4).

As teachers, and most particularly as writing teachers, we need to pay attention not only to the point of a piece of writing but also to how the piece is put together. We are not going to be effective at teaching students how to write persuasively if we don’t test what we read by the standards we expect them to apply, are we? Read the op-ed with that in mind.

Defective analogy

Eggers and Calegari’s article opens with a clichéd analogy comparing education to the military. The authors argue that when the military doesn’t win its battles, nobody blames the soldiers, but when education doesn’t fulfill its objectives, everybody blames the teachers.

Besides being threadbare from years of overuse, the analogy is also defective. Teachers may work in combat zones under wrong-headed policies established by higher-ups, but their situation is really quite different from that of the military enlistee.

Soldiers have no voice in what they will do or how they will do it. They cannot join a union to lobby for better pay, reduced backpack loads when the temperatures are over 80 degrees Fahrenheit, or fewer IEDs. There are no promotions for soldiers who don’t perform to the satisfaction of their superiors. If they mess up so badly as to incur a dishonorable discharge, they are not entitled to military pension benefits. In addition, they may lose the right to vote receive any type of government assistance, including loans for a college education.

A better analogy for the teaching profession than the military might be the nursing profession. To get hired, nurses have to meet state standards that usually include post-secondary education at their own expense. Nurses work in a mix of private and public institutions doing work most people don’t want to do under conditions most people don’t want to be in. Often they work under administrators with no hands-on experience in health care, carrying out policies that sometimes have the opposite effects of those intended.  And when budgets are tight, it’s not health care administrators whose jobs suffer.

Source use issues

Besides the problem of the defective analogy, I noted issues related to source use that I’d question if the writing came from one of my students.

For example, in paragraph 6, Eggers and Caligari say, “sixty-two percent [of teachers] work outside the classroom,” but they give no source. Then they present an anecdote about Erik Benner, a history teacher in Texas, who is said to go directly from a job at he goes directly from Trinity Springs Middle School to drive a fork lift until 11 pm. Again, no source is given. I was able to verify that Benner’s name is on the faculty list, but not the anecdote.

While I do not expect citations in a newspaper, I would expect to find hyperlinks in the digital versions (by 10 am the piece was on 30 blogs verbatim), I would like to be able to check to see if, for example, how many of those jobs are full-time concurrent with teaching and how many are part-time and summer jobs. Again, my reason for questioning is to be sure we are comparing apples to apples.

Please note that I am not arguing that Eggers and Caligari are wrong in advocating better teacher pay. (I happen to think that is an important factor in improving  education.) I am saying only that their argument in favor of better pay contains serious weaknesses as a piece of writing.

Since Eggers and Caligari are the founders of the 826 National tutoring centers whose  “goal is to assist students . . .  with their writing, and to help teachers get their classes excited about writing,” I’m sure they would agree that the quality of written work matters.