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Teachers Have It Easy: The Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of America’s Teachers

reviewed by Dave Iasevoli - February 06, 2006

coverTitle: Teachers Have It Easy: The Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of America’s Teachers
Author(s): Daniel Moulthrop, Nínive Clements Calegari, and Dave Eggers
Publisher: New Press, New York
ISBN: 1565849558, Pages: 355, Year: 2005
Search for book at Amazon.com

The subtitle here precisely summarizes this book.  The Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of Americas Teachers sticks to its central purpose; namely, to argue vehemently for greater pay for teachers in the United States.  It offers a wide variety of voices, from classrooms, the academy, and government, to build a case against an educational system that forces many strong teachers to leave the profession.  Through a series of testimonials, Teachers Have It Easy does not stop with the usual rhetoric about the need for merit pay, but pushes hard for a serious salary reform movement.

Moulthrop, Calegari, and Eggers polled some 200 teachers.  They also cite reports from such sources as the NEA, the U. S. Department of Education, RAND, and the National Bureau of Economic Research.  Yet this volume is far from statistics heavy.  There are only eight charts and graphs, and roughly half of this work contains the teachers voices.  Their stories about their successes and failures, their passions and letdowns, break through the clichés with a solid bottom-line:  Their salaries failed to support their modest lifestyles and their investment in the American Dream.  

The Introduction focuses on one powerful teacher, the only African American male teacher in Leadership High School (a public charter school in San Francisco), who  returned to selling real estate in order to get out of debt.  His story propels the remainder of the book, and it haunts Eggers Afterword, when the authors revisit Leadership and its students who have suffered from this teachers absence.

The authors never flinch from talking money.  They invoke studies such as the NEAs 2001 Status Report to impress readers with just how little teachers can expect in our economy, and in a culture that apotheosizes financial gain.  In the past 40 years, according to the AFL-CIO, the ratio of teachers salaries to per-capita GNP has slipped from 1.8 to 1.22.  In interviews with nearly 50 teachers, the authors present a litany of negative factors that discouraged some of them from staying in the profession.  The first three sections emphasize the desperate situation for both teachers and their schools, with such scenarios as teachers who cannot afford to live in the towns in which they work, teachers who hold down three jobs and work over 90 hours a week, and former teachers who earn more in their first years in other jobs than they had earned after 10 years in a school.

The overall tone here is relentlessly preaching to the choir.  We hear from a selection of experts in chapter 5, To Be a Teacher, in a detour into the world of pedagogy, who sometimes describe the act of teaching well as an ideal almost inhumanely out of reach.  As Professor Gaea Leinhardt (University of Pittsburgh) says, The intensity of being on for six and half hours . . . almost no other profession requires . . . Were asking [teachers] to be above the fray, to be able to care in honest ways with these children, and to administer justice constantlyand in the meantime to get something taught (pp. 100102).  The authors stress this central contradiction in our societys regard for teachers:  The United States holds them in the highest regard in the abstract as they care for its children, but since teachers are such altruistic and even saintly providers, they obviously do not care about money.  But Moulthrop et alia continue with Given the complexity of the job, it seems imperative to convince the most exceptional people to become teachers (pp. 110111).  They dismiss merit pay as another fleeting, stop-gap attempt at a solution.

Chapter 7, A Day in the Life, dramatically chronicles the disparities in both time and income for a high school math teacher and a pharmaceuticals salesman.  It employs a split-screen effect to show the typical workdays of two men, from 4 in the morning, when the teacher wakes, to 9:15, when he passes out in front of the TV while grading papers.  The salesmans picture is certainly skewed, as he shops for video games and chats with his girlfriendall on his companys dimebut it also clearly illustrates the degree to which a teachers day in the classroom and school is maniacally over scheduled.  This chapter alone could silence many arguments about teachers hourly wages as proportionately healthy.  

The final section of this book, Better Schools Begin with Better Pay, presents three examples of communities that radically altered lock-step salary schedules for their teachers.  In schools in Denver, Helena, and the San Fernando Valley, consortiums of teachers, administrators, policy makers, and, most centrally, taxpayers, created ways to break out of the boxes of  teachers salary scales.  In Helena, for example, the District was able to finance an increase from $23000 to $30000 for starting teachers; it freed up $1 million by creating incentives for senior teachers to retire.  Yet the development of all three of these reforms involved lengthy bargaining processes, in which a majority of teachers was needed to support the notion of pay-for-performance.  Why does this not feel like merit pay?  One of the cornerstones in both the Vaughn School, outside of Los Angeles, and in the Denver schools, is the provision for peer evaluations of teachers.  Here are teachers who have created benchmarks for high-quality teaching and award pay for those who meet these criteria.

The book closes with descriptions of programs that purport to improve the quality of education of children without improving the quality of life for teachers (Solutions that Arent).  These include Teach for America; New York Citys enlistment of Madison Avenue and the Hollywood director, Joel Schumacher, to create video spots to attract new teachers; the importation of teachers from India; and product and service discounts for teachers only.  And in the final chapter, there is this simple indictment of No Child Left Behind:  Whats lost in the shrill demands for more testing of students and teachers is that it takes great teachers to get struggling students to pass tests (p. 283).  Those who graduate at the top of their college classes now are far less likely to become teachers than those who held similar standings in the 1960s.  And, seriously, how many college valedictorians will be wooed by short films directed by the visionary who gave the world Batman and Robin?

The authors here have built a convincing case against U. S. societys perspective on teachers as still essentially altruistic, second-income earners.  School-teaching was once one of the few jobs open to women; and, for a few decades into the past century, it might have afforded a path into the middle class.  This is no longer a matter of course.  Here are teachers who love to teach but cannot afford to.  Teachers Have It Easy describes a grave situation and, as such, it might give pause to new teachers.  Teacher educators, administrators, union leaders, and policy makers can benefit greatly from reading this book, as it can ground their principles in a hardcore, dirty truth.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 06, 2006
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12319, Date Accessed: 10/24/2021 12:54:58 PM

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About the Author
  • Dave Iasevoli
    Teachers College
    E-mail Author
    DAVE IASEVOLI is a member of the faculty of the English Education Program at Teachers College, where he earned his doctorate in 2003. His daughter is finishing public high school in New York City. Last year, he edited a collection of oral histories, Killing the Sky, from Rikers Island inmates whom he taught. His research interests include teaching poetry, alternative literacies, and higher education for the incarcerated.
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