03/31/2011 08:52 am ET | Updated May 31, 2011

Can U.S. Teachers Truly Be 'Nation Builders?'

In his State of the Union speech in January and in subsequent appearances, President Obama has likened teachers to 'Nation Builders.' Here's what he told Congress and the American people:

"...(A)fter parents, the biggest impact on a child's success comes from the man or woman at the front of the classroom. In South Korea, teachers are known as 'nation builders.'"

But are American teachers "nation builders?" Could they be? What tools does a "Nation Builder" (or any other builder) need to be able to get the job done?

I know a little bit about building because years ago my brothers and I built a house by ourselves -- and learned some lessons about construction the hard way.

I assure you that builders have five basic needs:

  • Raw materials
  • Tools
  • Time and decent working conditions
  • Know-how
  • Blueprints

Does teaching provide these so that teachers are equipped to become "Nation Builders?"

Raw materials

In education terms, this must mean the kids themselves. There's no question that the building blocks are vastly different from what they were 40 -- or even 20 -- years ago. Pre-1975, handicapped kids were simply excluded from school. The vast influx of what are called English Language Learners (ELL) has transformed school districts, some of which are now "majority minority" (which the entire country will be in 2050). But while some teachers complain about having too many kids who are not "ready for school," children are "ready to learn" and capable of learning. Parents are, as always, sending their best kids to schools, not keeping them home. Teachers must work with the hand they've been dealt, and if they're not willing or able to do that, they belong in some other line of work.

I'm not calling that one a ball or a strike. (My rules)


In education, this means curricular materials. Ninety-three percent of teachers spend their own money on school supplies for their classrooms. The National School Supply & Equipment Association reported that public school teachers last year spent $3.1 billion of their own money on classroom supplies, according to the trade organization's annual market survey. Teachers surveyed said they spent, on average, $940 apiece in 2007-08. (Only $250 is deductible on a federal tax return.)

So the system is not providing adequate tools. That's Strike One!

Time and working conditions

Today's teachers work more hours (and earn less, in adjusted dollars) than teachers did 20 or 30 years ago. Moreover, American teachers spend more time on instruction than their peers in other OECD countries, meaning they have less time to help develop curriculum, watch each other teach, or engage in what is called professional development to improve their own skills and knowledge. The late Ted Sizer likened this to 'crowd control,' not teaching. In many other countries teachers are given time to prepare -- and expected to use that time wisely.

(Teachers on average earn about $50,000 per year, which is less than other professionals, saving only social workers, and in 2005, the last year I could find information for, nearly half of teachers were holding down other jobs during the school year to make ends meet.)

That's Strike Two!


Do today's teachers have what it takes to be "Nation Builders?" By one measure -- Masters Degrees -- our teachers are pretty well prepared. In 1987 only about a quarter of teachers had earned a Masters Degree; by 2007 more than half had. (Most of these data come from a forthcoming book you will want to read, The American Public School Teacher, by Darrel Drury and Justin Baer, coming from Harvard Education Press.)

But is that adequate, given that no research convincingly connects teachers' advanced degrees with improved student outcomes?

Here we begin wandering into the swamp of education research. While everyone believes that having an 'effective' teacher adds years of learning and having an "ineffective" teacher subtracts learning, few in positions of authority agree on the characteristics of an effective teacher -- except that she 'moves the needle' on test scores.

Parents are divided on this. The Gallup Poll reports that 71 percent "have confidence" in those now teaching, but when asked to identify education's biggest problem, 44 percent select "improving the quality of our teachers." Go figure!

Teachers complain about their own training, just as they have for years, and doesn't that open the door for doubts about their skill level?

As the teaching profession expands, most of the new hires are coming from the lower quartile of college graduates. Moreover, of the roughly 200,000 new teachers being hired, about 30 percent come from "alternative certification" programs, meaning they have had just a few weeks of summer training before entering the classroom. How much know how can they possibly possess?

For know how, I am calling Strike Three. But since this is my game, my rules, I should explain it's "Four strikes and you're out."


This leaves us with blueprints -- an absolute necessity in any building project. That's the grand vision of what the finished project will look like as well as clear step-by-step directions. Does public education have either? It seems to me that we have too much of the latter, and nowhere near enough of the former.

Teachers report that they are forced to "teach to the test" or focus inordinate amounts of time on test preparation. In fact, 60 percent say that's their biggest problem.

In construction terms, that would be a little like having the foreman paying close attention to how you swing the hammer without much regard for the overall design of the house.

Telling teachers to get those test scores up is not the same as having blueprints. In fact, the absence of a national dialogue about the goals of education, the lack of clear national standards, and our foolish obsession with bubble tests say to me that we are a nation without a blueprint for education.

(Yes, we are developing common standards, and that's progress, but we aren't talking about the purposes of schooling. And sooner or later, someone somewhere is going to have to say 'No Mas' to so much testing.)

The absence of blueprints really is Strike Four, but it's not the teachers who are being called out here. It's our national failure to provide them with the tools -- including the leadership -- that would allow them to be 'Nation Builders.'