Dave Eggers Says Teachers Should Make More

Writer Dave Eggers argues the best way to attract great teachers is to pay them more. Eggers and activist Ninive Calegari co-founded the Teacher Salary Project, to raise awareness about the low salaries that they say drive many teachers from the classroom.

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NEAL CONAN, host: A new documentary focuses on four public school teachers, and on a part of their job that's often accepted as a given: long hours and low pay.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "AMERICAN TEACHER")

RHENA JASEY: You know, nobody would question a doctor being paid or a lawyer being paid or, you know, somebody working in consulting being paid. And I think the skill set required to be a teacher is at least as complex, if not more complex.

CONAN: Rhena Jasey in an excerpt from the documentary "American Teacher," which is part of the Teacher Salary Project, which hopes to raise the pay and the stature of the profession, so bright and talented teachers will stay on. Few will argue with that aspiration. But as federal, state and local government all face cuts, where would the money come from? Our phone number: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Two of the principals behind the Teacher Salary Project join us now from KQED, our member station in San Francisco, writer Dave Eggers, whose books include "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius." Nice to have you with us today.

DAVE EGGERS: Thank you. Nice to be here.

CONAN: And teacher, writer and activist Ninive Calegari, thanks very much for coming in.

NINIVE CALEGARI: Thanks for having us.

CONAN: And the numbers may be different now because of the economy, but one survey of teachers in 2007 showed half of the new teachers gave up teaching in the first five years. Was that due, do you think, largely to salary?

CALEGARI: It's in part - this is Ninive. It's in part because of salary, but teachers also want a better quality of life and better conditions, and I think 62 percent of teachers having second jobs is really dramatic and something that we can work to change. The salary absolutely impacts the strain and drain of the job. But when you ask teachers what they want, they also have other ideas of, you know, having strong leadership, beautiful campuses, resources. So there's a portfolio of things that need to change in order for teachers to be able to stay and thrive.

CONAN: And, Dave Eggers, one of your books is titled "Teachers Have it Easy." That's, I think, tongue-in-cheek?

EGGERS: Yeah. The subtitle is "The Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of America's Teachers," and Ninive and I wrote that with another teacher, Daniel Moulthrop. Then that's where the movie came out of. Those were the stories of dozens of public school teachers from around the country, telling their stories and their sacrifices and problems and conditions that could have been better. And you had all these incredibly gifted and dedicated educators, but they were really pushed to the brink too often. And they want to teach and they desperately want to stay in the profession, but sometimes, societally, we make it incredibly difficult for them to do so.

CONAN: And Ninive Calegari, that - should pay be commensurate with lawyers and doctors?

CALEGARI: Well, I think it's really important to recognize that teachers get paid a lot less than other professions with the same amount of training and the same college degrees and master's degrees. One thing has changed really dramatically. In 1970, if you were a starting teacher in New York, you were earning only a couple thousand dollars less than a starting attorney. And, today, a starting teacher in New York still earns around $45,000, and a starting attorney earns $160,000.

And so I do think we need to mastermind a better plan so that the salaries do stay up with accountants and engineers. And you see successful countries that focus on teachers, their governments ensure that those salaries stay the same so that the salary doesn't become a disincentive. I think when you ask college students if they care about salaries, they do. And so we have to address this.

CONAN: I would point out the attorneys who work for the city don't make that kind of money. The people work in the district attorney's office, and they're starting out. And, of course, teachers generally work, in New York, for the city.

CALEGARI: Well, and I think that's true. And I think even the starting salaries of many professions aren't as dire. For example - I mean, that's not where the tender area is. For example, starting architects, starting publishers, starting doctors when they're doing their residency, they don't earn a lot of money. I think the hard thing for teachers is that they don't ever have the opportunity to earn more money.

EGGERS: It's the - a lot of teachers that we talk to, it's not necessarily the starting salary that's the real disincentive. It's the ending salary, because the average ending salary for a teacher that might have worked 25 years now in the U.S. is $67,000. So that doesn't at all keep pace with dozens of similar professions in terms of the education requirement and the complexity and the intellectual weight of the job.

CONAN: And we could only accept your argument. Teachers are underpaid. They're the future, because they train the next generation. Of course they should have a greater status and greater pay. But, Dave Eggers, we all read the papers, too. People are cutting back. Where is the money going to come from?

EGGERS: Well, we've done a lot of interesting stimulus packages on a federal level, and even on local levels. And, you know, there's - by one estimate, we could double all teacher pay for what it cost for the Cash for Clunkers program. You know, we're at a point where, globally, we need to educate our youth so that they compete - they can compete, you know, 10, 15 years from now. And right now, we're falling behind a lot of other countries.

And, you know, the countries that have really fantastic education systems really are organized, and they have a plan, and they invest heavily in every aspect of education, starting with teacher training and preparation and compensation. And so it's incredibly short-sighted of us on a national level to sort of see this as some, you know, optional thing, or to put it aside. We need a plan. We need an educational stimulus package.

CALEGARI: And think - sorry to cut you off, but Linda Darling-Hammond talks about how we're going to need to teach our way out of this economic crisis. And I think if we're going to be borrowing money from our grandchildren, I think this is the only excusable place to borrow it. I would also say that within school budgets, one thing that we need to look at is teachers just need a bigger piece of the pie, and I think that there is - there - the onus can also be on educators and principals and school board members to look within their budgets and look what - where the opportunities are.

For example, the textbook industry is $8 billion. The professional development industry is $3 billion, with mixed results. So I'm not saying that those are two perfect answers, but I am saying that we can look within school budgets and say: Teachers need a bigger piece of the pie. The research is saying teachers are the most important school-based factor. We have to make sure that we keep the good ones, and we have to make sure that college students will want this job, so we have to be creative, and we have to redistribute.

EGGERS: And I - Neal, I should just add that, you know, the cost of our turnover - 46 percent of the teachers leaving the fourth, the fifth year - that costs us $7 billion a year. So the price of our current system is higher than it would be if we were to reward and retain these teachers.

CONAN: We want to hear ideas for where the money would come from. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Matthew's on the line, calling from Vernon in New Jersey. Matthew, are you there?

MATTHEW: Yes, I'm here. Hi. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure. Go ahead.

MATTHEW: First-time caller. I'd like to just - I wonder if - what the relevance of, you know, creating more positions for teachers. Being that I am a graduate with an exercise science degree and I'm trying to be a phys-ed teacher, but I - it's impossible for me to find a job. So I'm actually working making prescription optics right now. I, you know, I completely agree that it should be a higher-paying job, but I'm more concerned on not having enough money to fill new positions and whatnot, overcrowding classrooms and all that stuff. I completely agree, though, that, you know, salaries should be raised, considering we are raising our future.

CONAN: Well, Ninive Calegari, the - I think if there was going to be more money for education, it would be used to hire more teachers rather than specifically to raise teachers' salaries.

CALEGARI: I think sometimes people want us to choose one or the other, you know? When we were on NBC, Al Roker said to us: Do you think teachers want respect or salary? And I just think we need to sometimes blend to these things. We, of course, need to have - principals need to be able to decide how many teachers they need, and they need to be able to hire those. And at the same time, those teachers need to be well paid so they can stay on the job. So it's not an either/or, and I think it's not respect or salary. I think it's not conditions or salary.

We need to look at all of those things and create a profession that college students stay up awake at night worrying if they can possibly be a teacher the way they worry about being in medical school. So it's a long-range plan. I think there are four - I'll just put it out there for the callers. I think there are four very tender areas in our country where reasonable people disagree. And I think the budget crisis is obviously one, where we need to be creative and we need to scratch our heads.

Another area is the unions and their role in moving forward working with them. Another area is teacher evaluation, and another area is poverty. And so I think that those are four areas that really smart people who are well informed don't necessarily always draw the same conclusion. And so I'd love to also hear what callers think about all of those areas, as well.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Matthew.

MATTHEW: Thank you so much. I appreciate it.

CONAN: And good luck finding work. Here's an email that we have. This coming in from Amy in Austin: There is no free lunch, she writes in capital letters. You want good schools? You, the taxpayer, will have to pay. Thanks to the Californians, the whole Proposition 13 thing, citizens of our country has swallowed the lie that they can have something for nothing. That is the notion that needs to be pushed into the trash bin of history where it belongs.

Proposition 13, basically, was - capped the tax increases in California and reduced them and reduced the amount of money available for the budget for all kinds of things, including teachers. Now, Dave Eggers, what do you think?

EGGERS: Well, I agree. I think that, for a long time, we've wanted an excellent, world-class education system, and we're unwilling to pay for it. People are - want it on the cheap. And it's a very strange cognitive dissonance that's going on on a national level. We value education. We say we value teachers. We know how crucial they are. We know that they are, you know, central in our children's lives, but we don't seem to mind when we see them working a second job at Circuit City or driving a forklift, which is on the weekends, which one of our teachers in our documentary does to make ends meet. And I think we really need to change that mentality. And, you know, the point of the movie is just to see teachers' lives and to really get inside their world and know what they're up against, and I think most people come away thinking we have to do better.

CONAN: We're talking with Dave Eggers and with Ninive Calegari. They're the producers of the documentary "American Teachers" and part of the Teacher Salary Project.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

Let's see if we can go next to - this is Scott, Scott with us from Ashland in Oregon.

SCOTT: Hi. I am sorry. I can't solve where the money is going to come from, but I have a perception, as someone who has taught college for the last - in - of the last 10 years in four different colleges across the country. And yours guest can feel free to shoot me down if they think I'm wrong. But I've taught in music departments and, of course, music departments are churning out way too many musicians. They - we could do with half the number of music schools.

But the same thing seems - I think is happening in education, because a lot of our music students, especially the ones that are kind of near the bottom, not all of them, but a lot of them tend to go into education by default. And it's my perception that across the country, there are too many education majors being turned out. I remember a few years ago, it could've been about 15 or - 10 or 15 years ago, when there were some states that had teacher shortages, and they were paying bonuses to try to lure them from other states. And even in spite of the unions, I'm wondering if we cut down on the number of education majors, thus raising the quality at the same time, because we'd be more competitive...

CONAN: Or creating more demand, and supply and demand.

SCOTT: ...would that help to drive up salaries?

CALEGARI: Well, I don't know if it would help to drive up salaries, but I do know that the governments that are more successful, they absolutely make sure that the supply and demand is balanced such that somebody who's applying to be a teacher is basically guaranteed a job. And the other that's successful...

SCOTT: Well, this wasn't the case with the young man that just called in who said, oh, I can't get work, you know. Well, what do I have to do?

CALEGARI: Exactly. Exactly. He should have a job if, you know, he's been well prepared and the government has invested. In fact, the other thing that successful governments do is they pay for their training. You know, I'm still paying my monthly graduate school, and teachers pay for their credentials. And I remember being in the classroom in my 20s thinking, you know, I work for the American government. If I were working for the military, my training would be paid for.

And so I think not only do we, you know, not only do we undervalue them with salaries, but then we actually ask them to pay for all their own professional development, their credentials, and then, of course, classroom supplies. Over 90 percent of teachers buy their own classroom supplies, as well. So it's not a pretty picture.

CONAN: Scott, thanks very much for the call.

SCOTT: Thank you.

CONAN: There is also a perception that teachers have it easy because they are not required to work year-round, for the most part.

CALEGARI: Well, I think, you know, people also think that the job is from 9:00 to 3:00, and that's one of the things we debunk in the film. I really want to make sure that people are enticed to see the film. Some of the things that we wanted to draw in the film is some of the absurdities of teachers working, you know, late into the night, grading papers and not finding places - this is a reference that you'll have to go and see the film in order to understand - but not being able to find places to pump milk when you're nursing your baby.

So there's all kinds of different things where we hope to really bring in some of the absurdities and make people laugh and make people connect to the humans in the film so that we could have a more informed policy discussion. But the film is warm, and it's really about these four human beings and what they experience.

CONAN: Let's see if we get one more caller in. Michael's on the line, calling from Buffalo.

MICHAEL: Hi. How do you do? Well, I've called before. Thank you very much for taking it. I'm a parent of two teachers in the Buffalo, New York, area, here. And the biggest problem that we have is - in New York State especially, is the very high concentration of school districts, not countywide. But, you know, in one local area here in Cheektowaga, there are six different school districts to feed one community.

So you have a very high bureaucracy, administration, stealing money from the classroom and putting it in an administrative level that serves no purpose in the classroom, and then with the budget problems we've had, what do they cut? Teachers. So you get less teachers, more students, but they don't cut the bureaucracy.

CONAN: Dave Eggers, is that one possible answer?

EGGERS: I'm sitting here in the studio pointing to Ninive, because she's better informed about this because she's been up against these things as a public school teacher herself. But - so I'll bounce it to Ninive.

CALEGARI: I'll say that I've taught in districts where there's an incredibly slim bureaucracy at the, you know, superintendent's office, and that's when I taught in Marin. And the superintendent actually knew us, and he had three staffers, and everything was unbelievably clean and simple. And then I've also taught in San Francisco, where there's an enormous office.

And so I have seen the differences in terms of how you can balloon out the bureaucracy, and I think we have to figure out where all of our opportunities are to cut so that we can emphasize teachers' salaries. And it sounds like New York could do some exploring to make sure that teachers' salaries are emphasized.

MICHAEL: The outgoing superintendent had doubled his administrative staff since he took office, adding more superintendents that are being paid upwards of 150 to $200,000 a year, while at the same time they slash teachers and aides in the schools.

EGGERS: And I, you know, that's such a good point. And one of the things that we know, because we run a writing and tutoring center here in San Francisco, is that schools are very delicate ecologies. And when a beloved teacher leaves or is fired or laid off, that affects everything, and that affects the students and it affects their education. So we need to better continuity. We need better stability, and we need to keep the great teachers in the classroom.

CONAN: Dave Eggers and Ninive Calegari, thank you very much for your time.

EGGERS: Thank you so much.

CALEGARI: Thank you.

CONAN: And good luck with the Teacher Salary Project.

CALEGARI: Thank you.

EGGERS: Thank you.

CONAN: On Monday: What men can expect after prostate surgery, plus a U.S. journalist who covers the murder - murder capital of Mexico. Join us for that.

This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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