Don’t Just Pay Teachers, Empower Them
Louisiana is now less than one month away from the gubernatorial primary when individuals will vote for governor, state representatives and senators, members of the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE), and other statewide elected offices. In the area of education, most candidates are focusing their remarks and written platforms on teacher pay, each promising to increase overall compensation or give recurring pay raises versus one-time stipends or bonuses. Some are also talking about expanding educational options for families, increasing student access to career and technical education courses, and emphasizing the fundamentals of reading/literacy and math. But as the frantic push for votes continues, the rhetoric seems to suggest that compensation is Louisiana’s most important K-12 education issue.
But is it, really?
Teacher pay is indeed important. According to the Louisiana Department of Education, which testified before lawmakers at the 2023 legislative session, the national average teacher salary is $66,397. Louisiana’s average teacher pay is $54,097, just $713 below the average of other southeastern states to which we typically compare ourselves this time of year, at least in the SEC. Those who teach and care for our children throughout the day deserve to be well compensated, and their pay and benefits should be competitive enough to recruit and retain our best and brightest in the teaching profession versus other career options. That hasn’t always been the case, and it has caused many talented individuals who have a love for children and a passion for teaching and learning to stay away from the classroom.
But compensation is only part of the decision. Today’s young professionals, more than ever before, want work environments that value creativity and innovation, embrace technology, and offer flexibility and opportunities for growth. Not only are fewer of them choosing teaching (teacher preparation program enrollment has been way down for several years now), but current teachers are leaving the profession in droves.
Teaching and learning just don’t look like they used to 50 years ago, or at least they shouldn’t. Some are calling it the “end of K-12 education as we know it.” As we learned during the pandemic, kids learn in a variety of different ways and environments:
- Through face-to-face, virtual, and hybrid formats;
- At traditional public schools, charter schools, private schools, magnet schools, microschools, and learning pods, and home-based schools and programs;
- Leveraging traditional group instruction versus self-directed learning or competency-based education; and
- Receiving educational services from a single school or provider versus multiple ones carefully selected by the student’s family to meet their individual needs.
Add to these growing options the incredible advances in technology, such as virtual reality and artificial intelligence, that are revolutionizing education as we know it.
Yet most teacher preparation programs continue to train educators to teach in the same settings and using the same methods you and I experienced decades ago. It’s a major turn-off to young adults beginning their careers, and it’s a disservice to our children and families, who need and want diverse educational options that fit their child’s needs and their family’s priorities.
This recent national survey of K-12 educators conducted by EdChoice this past spring revealed several interesting things. First, the overwhelming majority of teachers were trained to provide a very traditional (and arguably out-of-date) education. They weren’t introduced nor prepared to pursue opportunities as teachers or educational leaders outside of traditional schooling in the public education system. Two, many teachers know little about emerging technologies and innovations, but they want to know more about them, to maximize student learning and engagement, guard against any risks, aid in their own professional growth. Three, most teachers support the increasing educational options that many states are pursuing, including education savings accounts or education scholarship accounts, not only because they increase options for kids and families, but because they offer flexible, innovative ways of pursuing their own career interests.
Similarly, the Fordham Institute recently argued for giving educators more flexibility in the traditional school work week. They reported that 38% of teachers ages 25 to 34 already plan to leave the classroom, in contrast to 30% of their older colleagues. And among teachers who planned to leave as of 2022, 26% cited a desire for greater workplace flexibility as a top reason motivating their career change.
State leaders must empower educators as professionals in this new digital age and as more and more states join the educational freedom revolution. Yes, they deserve to be compensated competitively for the enormous work they do to teach and care for our children, but a commitment to teacher pay alone is just not enough. Not for them, and not for Louisiana’s kids and families.
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