8 minute read

United States

Teaching Profession

Digest of Education estimates show that approximately 3.1 million people were employed as elementary and secondary school teachers in the fall of 1999, an increase of about 13 percent since 1989. Of that 1999 total of 3.1 million teachers, about 2.7 million worked in public schools and 0.4 million were in private schools. About 1.9 million taught in private and public elementary schools, while about 1.2 million people taught in secondary schools.

The U.S. Department of Labor projects a healthy job picture for teachers into 2010. In particular, enrollment projections are rosy for secondary school teachers. Nonetheless, even though state budgets generally were better padded through the national economic good times of the late 1990s, teachers for the most part saw little reduction in teacher-student ratios, except in those school districts that made the lowered ratio a priority. College reformers long have said that states must create more favorable student-teacher ratios if college entrance scores are to pick up.

Despite this, a slowdown in the effort to create a more favorable student-teacher ratio has occurred. Teachers originally felt optimistic in the mid-1980s: the public school ratio in 1985 was 17.9:1, as opposed to 22.3:1 in 1970. The level stayed about the same in 1990 as in 1985, with a ratio of 17.2:1. In 1998, at a time of national prosperity, the student-teacher ratio was 16.8:1, but by 2001 there were signs that classes were slowly swelling again. In actuality, many elementary teachers have classes of 24 or more pupils; because teachers of disabled students tend to have far fewer pupils in the classroom, the overall ratio is skewed.

Salary: Earnings for K-12 teachers in 1998 ranged from as low as $19,710 yearly to as high as $70,030 yearly. Median earnings were between $33,500 and $38,000 for all K-12 teachers, although for public school teachers alone the average was higher, at around $39,300. Entry-level teachers with a four-year degree averaged $25,700 yearly. Teachers may also earn additional pay coaching sports or leading other extracurricular activities, or by taking on another job during the summer.

Average salaries for professors in 2000 tended to be lower than comparable positions for Ph.D. holders in private industry. The average salary for professors at public institutions was $56,308, while at private institutions the average salary was $58,313.

Law professors earned the highest salaries, a whopping $17,000 a year more than their closest competitors in academe, business, and engineering, according to data reported by the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2000. Among the poorest paid college professors were English teachers of composition, at around $40,000 per year.

Age & Gender: In America's colonies all teachers were males, with the exception of southern women who taught and tutored in dame schools. But at the end of the nineteenth century and through much of the twentieth, a common perception was that teaching was a job for women. Educators did much to change that perception during the latter part of the nineteenth century, but a gender disparity remains.

According to the last available Department of Education figures for the 1993-1994 school year, female teachers outnumbered males 73 to 27 percent in public schools. The data was similar for private schools. About 75 percent were women and 25 percent were male, according to the Department of Education. However, male school principals outnumbered women 65 percent to 35 percent.

Regarding age, teachers in private schools tended to be younger. While private school teachers older than 40 made up 58 percent of all faculty members, in public schools 67 percent of teachers were over 40.

Training & Qualifications: Standards for teachers in U.S. private and public schools were demonstrably low from the colonial period up into the twentieth century. The actual job of teaching has changed more dramatically between 1950 and 2000 than it did in the preceding three centuries. Where once keeping order and requiring student recitations were the bulk of a teacher's labor, modern educators are expected to demonstrate subject competence, rhetorical and writing skills, coaching and problem-solving skills, and, above all, critical-thinking skills. They are expected to be imaginative, substituting games and computer exercises for tedious drills.

Because students learn at different rates, classes tend to be less rigorously run, with several groups of students working at different paces. To present the material, the teacher no longer requires just a blackboard and piece of chalk. Teachers increasingly are expected to come to the job with the skill to run media equipment, create and display a Microsoft Power Point demonstration from a computer, and come up with increasingly more creative ways to engage students and to ensure their mastery of material. At the same time, while teaching methods may become sophisticated, teachers themselves must enable all students to demonstrate their knowledge of the so-called "basics" of math, literacy, and science.

During the twentieth century, professional requirements for teacher certification generally stiffened in terms of coursework taken and overall classroom preparation, and graduation requirements from teacher-training institutions became rigorous. As of 2001, those requirements were being re-examined in response to teacher shortages. Administrators have started to consider hiring older people in fields such as science, for example, who decide in their 40s, 50s, and 60s that they would like to impart what they' ve learned to young people in the classroom but lack a teaching degree.

Suggested reforms in teacher training have included increasing the length of student teaching and providing additional teacher training at the graduate level or in-service level. Web sites devoted to learning and the exchange of ideas among professional elementary and secondary school educators have become increasingly popular as teachers become computer literate. Since 1955, one of the frequently waged debates has been over the level of subject mastery teachers should achieve before beginning their careers. A severe critic of traditional teacher education, Admiral Hyman Rickover charged that teachers needed additional coursework in their teaching subject or subjects.

According to the latest available figures from the Department of Education, about 47 percent of all public school teachers had earned at least a master's degree, while just 34 percent of private school teachers boasted a graduate degree. About 99 percent of all principals possessed at least a master's degree. All in all, teachers tend to make up a highly educated workforce.

Depending upon the state and school district, college students expecting to graduate from a teacher-education program are first generally required to post satisfactory scores on the College Basic Academic Subjects Examination. Many states require an overall college grade point average of 2.5 (a middle C average) from an applicant for a teaching certificate to be issued. In addition, since teachers are expected to maintain knowledge in their field, they often must have a grade point average of 3.0 (B-) in order to be accepted unconditionally into a graduate school; many graduate schools require an even higher grade point average in the applicant's major.

With the possible exception of emergency teaching certificates, applicants for a full-time teaching position must present evidence of successful completion of a bachelor's degree in education for state certification. The majority of states and school districts also demand that applicants for teaching posts turn in a score reflecting their competence in their area competence on the National Teacher Examinations (NTE) or on Praxis I or Praxis II written tests. As of 2003, the state of Ohio will also require applicants to pass another Educational Testing Service (ETS) exam called Praxis III, and other states are expected to tighten testing standards before granting licenses to applicants.

Requirements for teaching licenses vary state to state and are determined by state licensing authorities. Many states, such as Alaska, have required teachers to show recent evidence of classroom work, an obstacle for former teachers who wish to return to the profession, or for professionals in diverse fields to consider a career shift to teaching. All states demand that teachers adhere to standards of conduct generally above and beyond those expected of nonteaching citizens. States generally strip teachers of license who admit to, or are found guilty of, felonies, many misdemeanors, or behavior judged immoral by a state board or board of a local district.

Following the successful completion of an application process, a superintendent approves the applicant and then forwards a recommendation to hire to the local school board. Once signed, a teacher has a legally binding contract to work unless guilty of a crime, failing to show teaching competency, or demonstrating egregious professional conduct. Teachers, in turn, are expected to complete teaching during the term of their contract, with exceptions for pregnancy, medical leaves, and unforeseen emergencies.

Unions & Associations: During the nineteenth century, professional groups were formed that advocated high standards of teaching and administration. Several teacher groups, including the National Teachers' Association (founded in 1857), joined forces to form the National Education Association (NEA), a group that advocated reforms for students mainly involved in college-entrance curriculums, in 1870. Critics argued that the NEA catered to the very small fraction of secondary students that went on to attend college.

In time the NEA would become the largest union in the world in terms of member registrations, but growth was slow until Congress officially chartered the union in 1907. The NEA then officially renamed itself the National Education Association of the United States. One of the advantages of having a national organization was that school systems nationwide closely resembled one another in structure by 1920, dividing a student's early education into eight years of elementary school and four years of high school.

By the mid-to-late 1990s, teachers who specialized in a specific subject area also found it useful to support professional organizations that have Web sites devoted to member information and a special support section for new teachers, such as the National Council of Teachers of English.

In 2001, membership in the NEA was about 1.7 million teachers. Its closest competitor is the American Federation of Teachers with about 550,000 teachermembers. At present, only 39 states allow collective bargaining.

Additional topics

Education Encyclopedia - StateUniversity.comGlobal Education ReferenceUnited States - History Background, Constitutional Legal Foundations, Educational System—overview, Preprimary Primary Education, Secondary Education