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When you devalue teachers, you cheat your children

Jack Lessenberry

I’ve said more than once that it isn’t fair to expect teachers to solve all the problems of educating our kids. When a child is hungry, or has a chaotic living situation and no support at home, the best curriculum and the most effective teachers may not be able to make enough difference.

However, having said that, it is clear that without good teachers, our children have little chance of ever being successful, and virtually no chance of living anything other than a poverty-stricken life.

That is, unless they turn to crime, or have very rich parents. The days in which someone could get out of school without any skills and get a good-paying secure job on, say, an assembly line are over.

There is not even much margin of error for kids these days who screw up just because they are kids. I have one friend who is worry-stricken because her son, who is in high school, is too interested in sports to keep his grades up.

I know a single mom who is desperately concerned because her 14-year-old son is being, well, a 14-year-old and not studying. Once upon a time, both these kids would have had plenty of time to get their acts together.

These days, not so much.

All of which ought to mean that we should be realizing more than ever that effective teachers are worth their weight in gold. That’s almost literally true, when you compare the average lifetime earnings of a college graduate to a high school dropout.

You would think communities would offer bonuses and large salaries to teachers with proven records of success. But we are doing exactly the opposite.

For the last few years, the Michigan Legislature has been waging war on teachers’ unions and benefits.

Many lawmakers now seem determined to completely eliminate teacher pensions and force them instead to rely on 401k plans. This may, in one sense make sense for the state, which, if this happens, would save on pension obligations.

But looked at from a big picture standpoint, it doesn’t. For years I was married to a woman who won awards for being one of the best AP history teachers in the country. She worked 12-hour days, nights and weekends, and planned new courses in the summer.

Her recommendations got many students into the University of Michigan, Harvard, Yale, and other world-class schools.

The services she and her colleagues rendered to Michigan’s future more than earned their pensions.

But today, they’d be offered inferior pensions and health care.

Many of them have told me they would go into other professions. If we were facing an emergency, I don’t think many of us would turn to cut-rate brain surgeons for our children.

But we want to develop their brains on the cheap, and by cutting teachers’ benefits and pensions, send them the message that we place less and less value on what they do.

And yet, we pretend to care about education and our children’s futures. Michigan today is a place where we spend far more on our prisons than on higher education.

Some would think that says something about our priorities and our future.

My guess is that they would be right. 

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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