Teachers And The Crisis In American Public Education

Nov 19th, 2022 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

The mission of Issues in Perspective is to provide thoughtful, historical and biblically-centered perspectives on current ethical and cultural issues.

Most educators agree that public education in America is in crisis.  This crisis is multi-faceted, but no matter how one examines this crisis, teachers are the most important facet of education.  They spend the most time with America’s youth and their impact can be enormous.  For that reason, we should be concerned with these three statistics:

  • 53% of public schools report being understaffed this year
  • There are 36,000 vacant teaching jobs in American
  • The pay gap between teachers and similar professions is 23.5%.
  • According to the September US Department of Education survey, more than half of public-school principals reported that their school was understaffed, especially for special-education positions.

The end result is that students suffer.  For example, Time magazine reports on the Eastside High School in Patterson, New Jersey: “Nearly 600 students are currently enrolled in science classes that lack a full-time teacher, with four substitutes filling in as the school tries to fill five vacancies for science teachers . . .  Some students don’t have a teacher for their science classes at all, and are working on assignments in the school’s auditorium ‘under staff supervision.’”  Furthermore, according to a working paper published by Brown University’s Annenberg Institute, “Researchers found at least 36,000 vacant teaching positions across the country and at least 136,000 positions that are held by underqualified teachers.”

Let’s examine two dimensions of the teacher and the crisis in American public education:

First, in 2008, Barack Obama said that “the single most important factor in determining [student] achievement is not the color of [students’] skin or where they come from.  It’s not who their parents are or how much money they have.  It’s who their teacher is.”  Few would disagree with that statement.  In fact, for most of us, we can remember that often it was a teacher that had the greatest impact in our personal/professional development or in major decisions we have made.  For me, that I got involved in higher education was due to two teachers who deeply influenced me.  Joel Klein was the chancellor of New York City’s school system for eight years.  He has much to say about recalcitrant teachers’ unions and mediocre teachers.  His 2011 essay is still relevant and is of profound importance, and there are therefore several salient points that I want to summarize:

  1. Politicians, especially Democratic politicians, generally do what teachers’ unions want, and,  Klein argues, the unions are very clear about what they want:  “They want, first, happy members, so that those who run the unions get reelected, and, second, more members, so their power, money, and influence grow . . . [Teachers] want lifetime job security (tenure), better pay regardless of performance (seniority pay), less work (short days, long holidays, lots of sick days), and the opportunity to retire early (at, say, 55) with a good lifetime pension and full health benefits . . . whether you work hard or don’t, or in a hard-to-staff school in a poor community or not, you get paid the same, unless you’ve been around for another year, in which case you get more.”  Arguably, Klein is talking about New York City, but many public school teachers represented by the National Education Association would fit this paradigm.
  2. Klein comments on tenure:  For the teachers’ union, tenure is “merely due process.”  But, as Klein shows, firing a teacher for non-performance is virtually impossible.  He details how in a system that employs over 55,000 teachers, during his time as chancellor, they only fired 6 teachers for incompetence or nonperformance—over eight years!!
  3. Klein also believes that the practice of calculating teacher’s salaries must be challenged.  For example, “consider the consequences of the ubiquitous practice of paying the same for math and physical-education teachers.  Given the other job opportunities for talented mathematicians—but not for phys-ed teachers—the same salary will attract many more of the latter than the former.”  There is simply an acute shortage in some areas of qualified and competent math and science teachers.  What if superintendents could compete with higher salaries for good math and science teachers?  Teacher union contracts prohibit this.  Who suffers? The children.
  4. Klein also believes that in the US we must challenge the practice of having contracts for teachers that provide a mandatory salary increase each year, regardless of performance.  Seniority drives salary, not performance.  Virtually no other industry assigns compensation just to length of service.  Accountability and performance should determine salary, not simply years of service or number of graduate credits earned.
  5. Klein also believes that US public education must challenge the lifetime benefits scheme that flows from so many union contracts.  He writes that “each dollar set aside to cover [lifetime benefits of retired teachers] must be taken from what would otherwise be current operating dollars.”
  6. Klein argues persuasively that accountability is desperately needed in public education.  He writes that “Accountability, in most industries or professions, usually takes two forms:  First and foremost, markets impose accountability: If people don’t choose the goods or services you’re offering, you go out of business.  Second, high-performing companies develop internal accountability requirements keyed to market-based demands.  Public education lacks both kinds of accountability.  It is essentially a government-run monopoly.  Whether a school does well or poorly, it will get the students it needs to stay in business, because most kids have no other choice.  And that, in turn, creates no incentive for better performance, greater efficiency, or more innovation—all things as necessary as they are in any other field.”  Competition and choice are the two most-needed aspects of any meaningful reform of public education.  As Klein observes, “time is running out.  Without political leadership willing to take risks and build support for ‘radical reform,’ and without a citizenry willing to insist on those reforms, our schools will continue to decline.”

Arguably, Joel Klein led one of the largest public school districts in the nation.  But much of what he writes applies in one degree or another to many, if not most, of America’s public schools.  The unions that serve public school teachers (the AFT and the NEA) are powerful and deeply entrenched in the political culture.  The contracts they have negotiated in many of the urban areas of our nation are not sustainable.  Furthermore, typically they do not reward performance, only seniority.  Our nation needs determined leadership to change this system, for our nation is losing one of its most valuable resources—its children.  The system must change.

Second, in the early decades of the new republic called the United States, it was understood that public schools would be a cooperative effort between the parents, the church and the school itself.  Indeed, in these early decades well into the 19th century, schools were often held in the churches.  As the Industrial Revolution located factories in 19th century cities, many children did not go to a public school but worked in the new factories.  Therefore, the Sunday school was the only avenue for education open to many families.  Historian Timothy Larsen comments that “by the mid-19th century, Sunday school attendance was a near universal aspect of childhood.  Even parents who did not attend church themselves generally insisted that their children go to Sunday school.”  But as compulsory public education emerged, this ended the church’s leading role in education.  Spiritual and moral formation now shifted completely to the parents and the church.


Historically in the US, public education has had a local emphasis: The individual states often set certain standards, but the local public school was funded by local property taxes, governed by locally elected school boards and generally reflected the values and practices of the local community.  But in post-World War II America, this began to change.  For example, with Elementary and Secondary School Act of 1965, the creation of the Department of Education in 1980 as a Cabinet level agency, and the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, the role of the federal government in public education became significant.  Today, the Federal government provides money, sets certain standards for achievement tests and is dominant in enforcing Title IX issues dealing with Civil Rights, and other issues relating to discrimination.  In short, public education is no longer simply a local issue of governance, finances or standardized testing.  Public education has become a controversial, polarizing and complex aspect of American civilization.

Modern curriculums today, for example, give special emphasis to equity and progressive pedagogies, which are manifested “in new customs such as sharing gender pronouns, participating in identity-based affinity groups and adopting teaching materials that unsparingly discuss the role of racism in American society.” Therefore, both Democrats and Republicans are taking notice of all this.  “Democrats do themselves no favors by ignoring concerns about a changed educational environment.”  As Bret Stephens correctly argues, “. . . it is dishonest to argue that it is anything less than ideologically radical, intensely racialized and deliberately polarizing.”  If the Democratic Party continues to be associated with—to be the home of—radical progressive thinking in education, it will lose elections.


Columnist Peggy Noonan notes that “Americans’ relationship with public schools changed during the pandemic.  For the first time ever, on Zoom, parents overheard what is being taught, how, and what’s not taught, and they didn’t like what they heard.  The schools had been affected by, maybe captured by, woke cultural assumptions that had filtered down from higher-ed institutions and the education establishment.  The parents were home in the pandemic and not distracted.  They didn’t want their children taught harmful nonsense, especially at the expense of the basics.”  What parents observed via Zoom and the live-streaming of classes is that public education is no longer about teaching skills and communicating information necessary for success in life (e.g., mathematics, grammar, history as a framework for understanding the past, etc.); rather, public education is about political bias, hostility toward religion and sexual and racial indoctrination.


Philip Hamburger of the Columbia Law School goes so far as to claim that “The public school system, by design, pressures parents to substitute government education speech for their own.  Public education is a benefit tied to an unconstitutional condition. Parents get subsidized education on the condition that they accept government educational speech in lieu of home or private schooling . . . They are being pushed into accepting government speech for their children in place of their own.  Government requires parents to educate their children and offers education free of charge.  For most parents, the economic pressure to accept this educational speech in place of their own is nearly irresistible . . . Subjecting children to official political, racial, sexual and antireligious speech can be equally coercive.  And if public-school messages are so coercive against children, it is especially worrisome that parents are being pressured to adopt public educational speech for their own.”  Hence, for many parents, public education has become a vehicle for indoctrination, not the preparation for life.


Deuteronomy 6:4-9 stipulates the vital importance of parents in educating children.  There is to be a formal structure where children are taught facts, ethical standards and doctrinal truth.  Parents are thus central in moral and spiritual formation.  They model these virtues, values and standards before their children.  In America, parents, the church and the school should be cooperative and supportive in accomplishing this goal of education.  But moral and spiritual formation has been replaced by indoctrination and the pursuit of personal autonomy.  It is difficult to be optimistic about the future of public education in the US.  Christian parents will need to take seriously their responsibility before God in educating their children.  Because the public school system is not working, homeschooling or private school education are viable options.  But each one has a significant financial and temporal cost and, therefore, some Christian parents might need to embrace a sacrificial approach to educating their children.  For many public schools are no longer a viable option.  A model that fosters cooperation and support between parents, the church and the school is necessary.

See Time (24-31 October 2022), pp. 16-17; Joel Klein in The Atlantic (June 2011); Andy Olson, Christianity Today (November 2021), p. 7; Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, “School culture wars stirred up voters for a reason: Classrooms really did change” in the Washington Post (5 November 2021); Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal (6-7 November 2021); Bret Stephens in the New York Times (4 November 2021); and Philip Hamburger in the Wall Street Journal (23-24 October 2021).

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