Why Do We Undervalue Education?

How do we undervalue education? originally appeared on Quora - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.

Answer by Vielka Hoy, founder and director at Vielka Hoy Consulting, on Quora:

I would really like to address the "we" in the question.

Almost every person is aware that teachers are underpaid. When I did my student teaching in New York City, many of the newer teachers talked about living on their friends' kitchen floors, waiting for a pay jump when they received their clear credential. At least enough to move to the living room couch.

This didn't change when I moved back to the Bay Area, where we have special public housing for teachers and where pay hikes in one district (San Mateo) virtually depleted the qualified teacher pool a few districts over (Oakland). I also thought about every unmarried teacher I know; we are all moonlighting (yes, myself included). These teachers cater evening events, work at Starbucks and Barnes and Noble on the weekends, or have a real estate license. My high school Spanish teacher always talked about how he had to sell just three houses in a year to make a living wage in the summer. Wow, that's embarrassing. Not for him, but for us as a society to allow that.

So I thought more about the "we" in the question.

As most students return to school this week, I've seen many articles about the dreaded supply list. Most are encouraging, such as this one, reminding families that teachers are underpaid and shouldn't have to spend their money on school supplies also. I teach in a high school; without sending a supply list home, I still receive boxes of tissues and sympathetic notes from parents.

But I still feel uneasy. If families are trying to address the issue of teachers being underpaid, then why not pass a bond in the city to raise our salaries? What did they think that box of tissues was actually going to do?

Don't get me wrong. I am not an ungrateful teacher. I truly enjoy whatever means families choose to show their appreciation. I just wonder how it is that we have arrived at this place where we ask families to subsidize an education, something that truly should not have a value.

Going a step further, I thought about all the ways we, as teachers, encounter micro-aggressions around the value of teaching. I spend a lot of time thinking about how I can get all of my students to truly understand a concept. Should I use a song? What words should I emphasize in my lecture? What happens during this part when it's a little boring? What outside text supports this argument? So you can see that when I encountered Khan Academy's slogan, my feelings were hurt: "Free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere." Isn't that already what public school teachers are doing? And as far as I'm aware, no credentialed teachers even work for Khan Academy. How are they evaluating that "world-class" part?

This is where I made the connection, and it has a lot to do with business practices in setting prices. We value things based on how much they cost. If Jordans were priced closer to the cost it takes to make them, they wouldn't be so sought after. People would think they are cheap, badly produced, and be embarrassed to wear them. It's the same for teachers and public education: the price has been set so low that we all have come to undervalue it.

I was talking to a parent the other day. She said that her son didn't receive a good education because the school district couldn't attract good teachers with their low salaries.

"In California, a clear credential requires an additional year of school beyond a bachelor's, and in some cases a master's degree, numerous exams, and many certifications to work with English learners, special education students, and sometimes technology," I explained. "That 'bad' teacher has hundreds of hours of additional training before stepping into a classroom, regardless of the pay."

She shrugged and said, "Public school teachers are just bad."

And then there's tutoring.

"I did well in chemistry in high school," a young person said in an effort to gain employment as a tutor.

"But can you teach chemistry?" I asked.

She replied, "How hard can it be? My teacher wasn't all that great. I'm sure I can figure it out."

Just to be clear, I also don't think the solution is just to pay teachers more. Charter schools have proven that. We pay teachers more for their time commitments, but not for the teaching; otherwise, charter schools would actually hire teachers with the experience necessary to work with high-need populations.

If we all truly valued education, a lot of things would look different. And we might see a very different result in our children.

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