Thursday, March 01, 2007

"If you think education is expensive, try ignorance."

Last night, I went to "see" Vermont Public Radio's (VPR) live forum on the Future of Education in Vermont. If you want to get me on my soapbox, just get someone to start bitching about how expensive our schools are and how teacher's have the best deal with all those great health benefits and summers off. Vermont, as with many other states, has struggled to figure how to fund its’ schools. Money doesn't fall off trees and, in case you haven't noticed, the federal government is busy blowing all our tax dollars on a war that the country doesn't support. If the money for public schools isn't coming from taxes that you send to Washington, how is public education being funded? The individual states and towns are funding education. Take a look at your most recent paycheck and see how much is taken out for state income taxes. Not much. So now we have our friend property taxes and sales taxes to pay for all those little kiddies to become knowledgeable and civic-minded adults and turn our country in a better direction. We can’t afford a generation of uninformed and disinterested young people with what is going on in our country and the world.

So, if you’re still reading, maybe you really believe that education is worth it and you just want to know why it costs so damn much. Vermont has a reputation for high quality schools that offer a caring learning community. Doesn't that sound nice? I think so too. Guess what? Quality education costs money. With such a small population in largely rural areas that are facing declining populations, the per pupil cost of education is high. Here are a few other clues as to what else lies behind the high cost of public education, specifically in Vermont. Teachers are good people and, despite what you may think, they are not martyrs. They like to eat good food, live in a warm house, and even go on vacation! I hope I didn't ruin your image of your favorite grade school teacher. If Vermont can't offer a competitive salary and benefits to talented teachers, then they will not be able to attract or retain the skilled educators that we have become accustomed to expecting. The average teacher salary in Vermont is just shy of $40,000. For someone with a master’s degree and 5 -10 years of teaching experience, this is hardly a windfall. Taxpayers are usually getting a bargain. Perhaps the single biggest cost driver in school budgets nowadays is health care. Here’s a statistics to knock your socks off. The average percentage of a teacher’s total package (salary & benefits) that goes towards health care is 22%. That means that the cost of health care for a teacher making $40,000 is $8,800. How many Vermonters have property taxes over $8,800 a year? Not too many. So, the next time you’re angry about your property tax bill, you should call up the health insurance companies and give them a piece of your mind.

OK, I’m almost at the end of my education soapbox. Sit tight. This is the good part. I am going to tell you what you are paying teachers to do all day. I taught in a classroom for four years and let me tell you, that you earn every single penny and every vacation day. It is rewarding work, but it is also intellectually, emotionally, physically, and psychologically demanding and exhausting. For those of you who think that teachers come to school at 8:15, have a brilliant lesson plan idea, prepare to implement that lesson plan by 8:30, stand in front of the class while their while behaved students listen attentively, and then leave at 3:00, I have a little reality check for you. When I taught 5th and 6th grade, I typically put in 55-60 hour weeks if you count all the lesson planning, paper grading, communication with parents, and unexpected management issues that come along with putting 20 11 and 12 year-olds together and keeping them inside all day except for a 15 or 20 minute recess. You don't need a PhD in Child Development or Educational Theory to understand the intensity of the situation I have just described. Here is a schedule of my typical day when I was teaching.

6:15- Alarm goes off- Shower, grab some breakfast, and head out the door by 7:15

7:45- Arrive at school- make any necessary copies, write the schedule for the day on the board, check e-mail and respond to concerned parents, write any directions or notes on board.

8:30-3:00 showtime- 20 excited pre-adolescent students come into the room- 5 of these students have urgent issues they need to discuss with me-get class settled (hopefully) and begin teaching (hopefully). Throughout the day, give an average of 4-5 mini-lessons to entire class, work with groups and individuals on writing, reading, social studies, and math assignments. Sometime during the day, you are supposed to get a 45 minute prep period, which is usually used for planning with other teachers or parent meetings, and at least ½ hour for lunch. During prep period, you get to go to the bathroom, which you have likely had to do for over an hour (I never understood how pregnant teachers dealt with this), grade some papers, and maybe have a short conversation with someone over the age of 12.

3:00-5:30 (on a good day)- Take a short break, do that bathroom thing again, grade papers, help students after school, call and/or e-mail parents, tidy up room, and plan lessons for the next day.

5:30-Go home to eat and relax- spend at least 45 minutes grading papers and/or entering grades into grade book.

Tired? So are teachers. I loved teaching, but I don’t think it is a job where you could not make the argument that people are being overpaid. As one of my favorite bumper stickers says, “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”

If you want to learn more about the wonderful work that is going on in Vermont schools, here are a few good sites.

Vermont Community Works - An organization dedicated to working with schools to integrate the community into their curriculum. There are some really wonderful detailed examples of what teachers and students are doing to learn about and contribute to the communities that they live in.

Starksboro School in Teaching K-8 Magazine- Teaching K-8, one of the premier magazines for elementary and middle school teaching professionals, profiles one school in every issue. This month, they profiled the Robinson School in Starksboro, VT because of the remarkable work they have done integrating the arts across the curriculum.


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