Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Treating Teachers Better

By Aren MossPublished February 17, 2019

Frustrated Los Angeles teachers take to the streets to protest low wages and mistreatment.
The 2008 recession worsened the status of America's most important workers- its teachers. Now, struggling educators turn to striking as they face the consequences of years neglect and mistreatment. The United States can learn a thing or two from Singapore, the world's education frontrunner, to improve the quality and desirability of teaching.

            The recent Los Angeles teachers strike saw the spotlight return to an area too often ignored in the United States: the inadequate treatment of our teachers. The fact that teachers are the ones who educate future generations of thinkers, doers, and problem solvers makes the profession arguably the most critical for any country eager for a brighter future. Forcing teachers to abandon around 500,000 students and take to the streets for six days in order to protest is indisputable evidence of their mistreatment [1]. The strike evolved into a protest against school choice and privatization in the eyes of many politicians, but what United Teachers Los Angeles largely called for was more funding. Upon reaching a deal and ending the strike, the union secured a 6% pay raise and greater numbers of school nurses and librarians [1]. This was seen as a victory as the vast majority of teachers agreed to the terms, and while they achieved greater funding, it is unclear if they finally got the respect they deserve.

            Being a teacher in the United States in recent years has meant facing all kinds of hurdles that weigh down an already demanding job. A traditional public school receives most of its funding from local property taxes in its zone. Therefore, the more expensive a neighborhood is, the more money its school will receive and the better it will become. Since our education funding is highly dependent on the economy, this decentralized system of funding was not equipped to handle the housing market crash. To put it simply, the recession hit hard. 82,000 California teachers lost their jobs between 2008 and 2012 [2]. In the same period, California saw enrollment in teacher training programs drop around 55% [2]. Once the dust settled and the economy rebounded, the state was left with a major teacher shortage. In 2015, the state had to fill nearly 21,500 vacancies from a new pool of only 15,000 teaching credentials [2]. To plug in the gaps, standards for new hires were lower, and many even lacked these credentials.

            The impact of the recession on California is reflective of that of the nation. According to the National Teacher and Principal Survey by the DOE in 2015-2016, 18% of teachers nationwide work an additional job outside of the school system [3]. Any teacher will gladly tell you how difficult teaching is, let alone working a second job, an unfortunate reality for nearly one in five teachers. A 52 year old teacher in Oklahoma who was forced to work as a seating escort at sporting events said, “the hardest thing is when you give your all at school, your main job – and then you come home and you have to change clothes and change your mindset. Then you have to go to your second job and you’re tired. You still have to find that extra strength to go on because you know you still need that extra money to get those bills paid” [4].

            In order to give teachers the respect and resources they need, the United States can follow the example of Singapore, a country well renowned for its effective school system. Singaporean administrators take regular steps to keep teaching appealing, including issuing stipends during their years of training, re-evaluating and adjusting starting salaries, and basing eligibility for promotion based on more than simply their students’ test scores [5]. After three years of experience, teachers are given the opportunity for a major career development where they can become a master teacher, subject specialist, or school leader with salary increases for each option [5]. This clear respect towards teachers is the reason why Singapore students scored better than every other country in all three categories (math, science, and reading) of the most recent Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test [6]. On the same test, the United States scored below or around average depending on the subject. The evidence is clear– teaching could be associated with desirability and wealth instead of strikes and shortages with just a small dosage of respect. Maybe a little more funding couldn’t hurt too.

Works Cited

[1] Medina, Jennifer, and Dana Goldstein. “Los Angeles Teachers' Strike to End as Deal Is Reached.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 22 Jan. 2019,

[2] Rich, Motoko. “Teacher Shortages Spur a Nationwide Hiring Scramble (Credentials Optional).” The New York Times, The New York Times, 9 Aug. 2015,

[3] Department of Education. “Outside Jobs for Regular, Full-Time Public School Teachers.” National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) Home Page, a Part of the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, June 2018,

[4] Salam, Erum. “How I Survive: American Teachers and Their Second Jobs – a Photo Essay.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 5 Sept. 2018,

[5] Stewart, Vivien. “How Singapore Developed a High-Quality Teacher Workforce.” Asia Society, Center for Global Education,

[6] Jackson, Abby, and Andy Kiersz. “The Latest Ranking of Top Countries in Math, Reading, and Science Is out - and the US Didn't Crack the Top 10.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 6 Dec. 2016,