The Dollars and Sense of Teacher Compensation

| August 11, 2010

In these troubled economic times, common sense dictates that frugality rules.  So anything that smacks of fiscal extravagance seems to defy our collective good sense.

Jonathan Cohn recently wrote a fascinating blog entitled “Why Public Employees Are the New Welfare Queens” about the contentiousness surrounding civil servants’ compensation.  He posted the blog less than two days before President Obama appealed to the House of Representatives to pass a $26 billion aid package that would allow states to rehire or prevent layoffs of teachers and other civil servants.  After he points to the embattled terrain of research arguing that civil servants are either overpaid or underpaid in comparison to their private-sector counterparts, Cohn poses some thought-provoking questions:

But ask yourself the same question you should have been asking then: To what extent is the problem that the retirement benefits for unionized public sector workers have become too generous? And to what extent is the problem that retirement benefits for everybody else have become too stingy?

I would suggest it’s more the latter than the former. The promise of stable retirement–one not overly dependent on the ups and downs of the stock market–used to be part of the social contract. If you got an education and worked a steady job, then you got to live out the rest of your life comfortably. You might not be rich, but you wouldn’t be poor, either.

Certainly, part of the rancor in the debate about teacher pensions and compensation stems from an erosion of workers’ benefits in the private sector…an issue of haves vs. have-nots. If, as Cohn suggests, a good education no longer guarantees all of us a stable financial future, why should taxpayers foot the bill for teachers to have security they can’t get for themselves?  To most people, this seems to defy common sense.

But when did it become common for all workers to suffer from so much anxiety and insecurity about their futures?  When did it become our common belief that teachers are greedy and lazy, and education serves no real purpose other than what we can measure in the money we make in our lifetimes?  In Prison Notebooks, Antonio Gramsci asks us to question the validity of common sense.  While he acknowledges that he “does not mean there are no truths in common sense,” he says:

“…common sense is an ambiguous, contradictory and multiform concept, and that to refer to common sense as a confirmation of truth is a nonsense.  It is possible to state correctly that a certain truth has become part of common sense in order to indicate that it has spread beyond the confines of intellectual [or political] groups, but all one is doing in that case is making a historical observation and an assertion of the rationality of history” (423).

We have to ask ourselves why, at this moment in history, we’re being led to believe that we should all share insecurity about the value of education, a narrative of teachers as thieves or non-workers, and a tremendous anxiety about our futures.  Who benefits if these beliefs become common sense?

To avoid turning nonsense into common sense, we need to collectively explore ambiguities and resist the urge to scapegoat one another.  Teachers have the power to incite us to think critically, solve problems, listen deeply, and wrestle with discomfort. In her essay entitled “Teaching as Possibility: A Light in Dark Times,” Maxine Greene writes:

“…teaching as possibility in dark and constraining times…is a matter of awakening and empowering today’s young people to name, to reflect, to imagine, and to act with more and more concrete responsibility in an increasingly multifarious world. At once, it is a matter of enabling them to remain in touch with dread and desire, with the smell of lilacs and the taste of a peach. The light may be uncertain and flickering; but teachers in their lives and works have the remarkable capacity to make it shine in all sorts of corners and, perhaps, to move newcomers to join with others and transform.”

Who better to help us learn to navigate the contradictory, treacherous terrain of common sense than our teachers?