Who can do without professional care?

I was talking to a friend of mine who is studying to become a nurse. When she completes her master’s degree program, she will be able to earn a starting salary of $60,000! The median salary of registered nurses in New York City is $66,188. Compare that with the median salary of a New York City teacher: $47,974 (a troubling figure in itself because the starting salary is around $45,000.)

I asked, “How is it that nurses get paid so much more than teachers (no disrespect to nurses)?”

“There’s a huge shortage of nurses,” my friend said.

We both thought about that for a minute.

“But there’s also a shortage of teachers,” I said.

“So teachers with no training are allowed to fill vacancies through programs like TFA and NYC Teaching Fellows. Do they have programs like that for nurses?”

After a moment my friend shrugged. “No. I guess people would die if nurses weren’t trained. It would be too dangerous. It would become a liability issue.”

I’ve been thinking about this for a few days now. I cannot get over the idea that a shortage of trained nurses has prompted hospitals to pay nurses more, thus attracting many more people to the profession and providing strong incentive to stay in it. A shortage of trained teachers, on the other hand, has resulted in the development of programs that allow individuals with no training to become teachers in the most difficult to staff schools in the country! [I don’t believe that the six weeks of summer observation and course work offered by such programs constitutes real preparation—after all, they don’t let nurses get trained in six weeks, and they sure don’t let people become doctors that way!]

Given the lack of trained professional teachers, how can schools be held accountable for providing quality education for all children? Hospitals would never allow this for fear of harming patients and getting sued for malpractice.

Who is liable when students don’t receive an adequate education? I’ve taught 8th grade students who did not have a math teacher for the first three months of school; instead they had a revolving cast of substitutes who did not teach. When they finally got a teacher—a middle-aged career changer from the NYC Teaching Fellows program with no training—she quit within a month. After a few weeks of searching and more substitutes, a young NYC teaching fellow, also with no training, filled the vacancy. He had the unfortunate challenge of earning back the trust of students who had been cheated out of math education for the first semester of school and been allowed to run amuck every day in the classroom. Under the conditions, he did quite well—I mean he survived somehow and decided to stay in teaching for another year or two. But were those students prepared for the state math exam that year in March? Not at all.

The students were nonetheless held accountable for their math scores. The other person held accountable for those math scores was the principal. Was it her fault that it’s nearly impossible every year to find experienced teachers for every classroom? Is it her fault that so many qualified teachers leave the profession every year for more lucrative, less stressful jobs with better working conditions? Is it her fault that so many of her students come to school each day with more than their share of trauma and often lacking basic necessities like food?

The real liability is not the lousy test scores. It’s the fact that those students are at a fragile age where they are struggling to negotiate their relationship with school itself. They are beginning to question whether they will progress through high school or drop out when they turn sixteen; they are trying out the full range of possible behaviors, and they need skilled, caring adults to guide them to do their best. The high school drop out rate in New York City is close to 50%. Our students cannot afford the cost of years of instruction lost to absent or inadequate teachers, nor can they pay the emotional cost of being abandoned in their own schools at such critical times in their development. Is this any less dangerous than sending patients to a hospital where there is no trained professional to care for them?

[Imagine found at http://libizblog.files.wordpress.com/2008/01/hospital-bed.jpg]