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Then and Now

What we’ve gained (no more dittos!) and lost (respect) in a generation.

By Cynthia Kopkowski

It was a tumultuous year outside and inside the classroom, says Pamela Lenk. Thousands continued the slow effort to rebuild their lives years after a powerful hurricane that had ravaged the Gulf Coast. An already protracted war stretched into another year, killing hundreds more soldiers and civilians. Third-graders at Lenk’s poor, largely minority school struggled to master reading skills and keep pace with their peers at more affluent White schools.

The year was 1972. Then, Lenk was a first-year teacher in Gulfport, Mississippi. Now, she is a classroom veteran teaching special education students in Camarillo, California. Then, the hurricane was Camille, the war, Vietnam. And closing the achievement gap was—and still is—a pressing priority.

But as she prepared for the 2006–07 school year, Lenk reflected on victories large and small that educators have earned throughout her 34-year career. “NEA and CTA have helped teachers win the right to wear pants, teach while pregnant, and have smoke-free schools,” she says. “We have new reading books, integrated schools, and special education programs.” In other words, some of the history may seem cyclical, but we’ve come a long way.

To be sure, trends and fads have come and gone during the generation educators like Lenk have worked in the classroom. Richard Siegelman, a retired elementary school teacher in Plainview, New York, ticks off the buzzwords he encountered over 37 years of teaching—”New Math, Assertive Discipline, Whole Language....”.

“NEA and CTA have helped teachers win the right to wear pants, teach while pregnant, and have smoke-free schools.”

—Pamela Lenk, now and in the '70s

But real changes lurk beyond the catchphrases. Electives have fallen by the wayside as core subjects and testing have become the priority. This year’s triumph may be getting all your students over NCLB testing hurdles so the school makes AYP—acronyms not even in the lexicon a decade ago. Getting students to turn off their MP3 players and stop taking pictures with camera phones certainly wasn’t an issue in the 1970s and 1980s. (Although plenty of things still competed with academics for their attention then, like pet rocks and Garbage Pail Kids cards.)

While schools are now more diverse and served by a more professional, experienced workforce, teachers and education support professionals have lost ground on salary and other benefits over the past generation. Classrooms today are more crowded and represent a wide swath of languages and abilities. According to NEA research, this year will find you and your peers spending about 50 hours each week on all teaching duties, including noncompensated school activities, such as grading papers, bus duty, and extracurriculars. That includes 12 hours per week for the noncompensated stuff (up from eight in 1971). You’ll get about 32 minutes to scarf down a lunch. (Down from 40 in the 1960s!)

If you’re an elementary teacher, you’ll have about 21 kids in your class, while secondary teachers will have roughly 28. Classroom expenses will likely lighten your wallet by about $443 as you try to meet students’ needs for everything from tissues to learning tools. If it’s your first year teaching, you’ll make, on average, about $31,704.

Just like last year, there will be obstacles in your path: the No Child Left Behind law and everything that comes with it, crowded classrooms, and too little funding come to mind. But in NEA’s most recent polls, educators say they’re entering the teaching profession undaunted by the drawbacks. Nearly three out of four entered teaching because of a desire to work with young people. And nearly 7 out of 10 veteran teachers cited the same motivation as their reason for remaining in the profession.

So that’s you, today, as you take the first steps of the 2006–07 school year. But how does that stack up to past years? Read on! 


In 1971, Linda Krauss, now a staff development teacher in Silver Spring, Maryland, entered the classroom for the first time. She wasn’t alone. “Thousands of fellow Boomers were graduating with education degrees, and there was a teacher surplus,” she recalls. “I arrived in my sixth-grade classroom a naive but enthusiastic recruit, anxious to put into practice my lofty ideas of individualized instruction in an atmosphere of caring and sharing.”

Krauss and many of her fellow Baby Boomers stuck around, resulting in an experienced, well-trained workforce in the years that followed. In the early 1970s, the median number of years of teaching experience was eight. By the 1980s, it was up to 12, and last year it was 15. More than half of all teachers working this year have at least a master’s degree. In the early 1970s, only 27 percent of teachers did.

Today’s teachers are primarily White, female, married, religious, and about 43 years old, according to NEA research. That’s changing from past decades, when more male teachers were in the classroom. In the 1970s and 1980s, roughly 67 percent of teachers were women. In the 1990s, that crept up to 72 percent, then to 79 percent by the 2000s. The number of single teachers has dropped, from 20 percent in the 1970s to 15 percent in 2001.


During the 1970s, teachers’ salaries lost purchasing power because of inflation, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). In the 1980s, the trend reversed and teachers’ salaries began outpacing inflation, a turn of events that held through the next decade. But today, the 1970s trend is back, and it’s less welcome than the return of disco.

Teachers now earn less than comparable workers—a 14 percent gap that’s grown considerably over the past 10 years. Average teacher salaries rose 2.3 percent to $47,808 last year, but failed to stay ahead of a 3.1 percent increase in inflation. In Maine, West Virginia, and Alabama, the news was even worse, as average teacher salaries actually declined.

In a survey at the start of this decade, only 40 percent of teachers said they were satisfied with their salaries, down from 45 percent a decade earlier. No surprise here: NEA’s fight for a minimum $40,000 salary for teachers and a living wage for education support professionals (ESPs) is as important as ever.

For ESPs in particular, salaries have remained stagnant and benefits like medical and dental have been steadily chipped away—all while their responsibilities have evolved. “Our jobs have changed drastically from simply assisting the teachers in the classroom,” says Delaware paraprofessional Maureen Dreibelbis, who has worked in the classroom for 16 years. “We are now working with students at risk and teaching reading. We have to plan, organize, and execute a lesson every day. We have not seen an increase in salary for doing this.”


Take a look around. Does the sea of young faces seem to be growing? Enrollment in elementary and secondary schools has risen 22 percent since 1985.

“In my first year of teaching in 1965, I had a class of 16—and a negative remark on my evaluation for not using all the books in the cabinet,” recalls Sydney Stein, an elementary school teacher in Thousand Oaks, California. “Today, I count myself lucky that I only have 29 in my smallest class. I spend a fortune in time and money copying class sets of papers since buying books has become prohibitive.”

It’s going to get a lot more crowded in classes like Stein’s. NCES predicts record enrollments through at least 2014, as the number of school-age children continues to rise. In just five years, there will be 50 million students in public elementary and secondary schools, according to NCES.

It’s not just a matter of how many kids are coming, it’s also a matter of what countries they’re coming from and what special needs they bring as a result. Currently, U.S. schools enroll children who speak 425 first languages, according to the U.S. Department of Education. More than 5 million English-language learners enrolled in public schools in the early 2000s—a greater than 65 percent jump from the previous decade.

With roughly 3.1 million public school teachers, the average class size for secondary teachers has gone up from a low of 23 in the early 1980s to 28 at the start of this decade, according to NEA research. (Elementary teachers’ average dropped from 25 to 21 in that time.) In growing metropolitan areas like Clark County, Nevada, the fastest-growing county in the United States, nearly 12,000 new students join the rolls each year (see “Playing the Odds,” page 36). While you’re handing out all those extra worksheets and scissors this fall, NEA will work to promote a class size of 15 students in regular programs and even smaller ratios in programs for students with exceptional needs.

What will all these kids learn? Subjects are changing, too. Driven by NCLB mandates and changing classroom demographics, classes such as art, music, physical education, and other electives are being cut. “In 1980, our high school teaching staff contained four art, two agriculture, eight business, four home economics, three industrial arts, thirteen English, and three special education teachers for a school of 1,600 students,” says Allen Schuler, a Louisville, Kentucky, teacher who retired in 2004. “In 2004, the faculty included only two art, one agriculture, six business, one home economics, one industrial art, and nine English teachers for 400 fewer students. But there are now 15 special education teachers along with their five aides.”


Perhaps there’s no better educator to talk about the evolution of technology, at least where making classroom worksheets is concerned, than Claribel Jones, a Lake Charles, Louisiana, teacher who worked from 1963 until her 1999 retirement. That first year, she made copies with a gelatin tray, which required a complex system of writing, copying, sponging, and waiting for hours before moving on to the next worksheet. “I went from the gelatin tray to the hand-cranked ditto machine to the mimeograph machine to the copier and finally to computers with printers and scanners,” she says.

Judith Custer, an ESL teacher in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, remembers how one mistake on a ditto master machine turned into a 10-minute ordeal of scraping ink with a razor and perfectly realigning the paper. Just the thought of it used to give her stomachaches on Sunday nights.

Even relative newcomers have seen significant changes. Take Deb Ramey of Guilford County, North Carolina. When she began teaching business 16 years ago, lessons focused on electronic typewriters and a few computer applications such as word processing and spreadsheets on a handful of Apple IIs in the school’s lone computer lab.           

Now teachers guide their students through operating systems, networking, Oracle programming, Web design, and e-commerce. Schools have multiple computer labs, where students learn everything from core curriculum to computer engineering, graphics and animation, and auto repair.

In the early 2000s, the average public school contained 136 instructional computers, and nearly 93 percent of classrooms reported having Internet access, up from 51 percent just five years earlier. Virtually every school now has some level of Internet access.

The Public 

For the last 30 years, the folks at Gallup have been asking what people think of the public schools in their community and nationwide. Public school parents have always given strong marks to their schools, consistently ranking public schools’ performance higher than adults polled who don’t have any children in the system.

Parental involvement in schools has also increased in recent years. Some 88 percent of parents attend school meetings, compared with 76 percent nearly a decade earlier. In 1994, 28 percent of teachers named the lack of parental involvement as one of the most serious problems at their school. But by 2000, more than half of the teachers responding to a U.S. Department of Education survey said they got a great deal of support from parents.

Linda Krauss recalls that in the early 1970s, she had a dedicated group of parents consistently helping in the classroom. “At no time, however, did any parent suggest a better way to do my job,” she says. But today, while fewer parents stay at home, they’ve “become much more interested in the details of student performance and often provide input,” Krauss adds.

Carol Riddle Peters of Michigan says her parents are as involved today as they were 30 years ago. “We recently had a paper shortage and the next day, we had several reams show up,” she says. They also donate supplies, host teacher appreciation luncheons, and even built a patio at the school.

As for the general public, their concerns about schools have changed with the times. In 1970, they worried about lack of discipline and financial support, as well as integration, segregation, and racial discrimination. Discipline, or lack thereof, led the list throughout the 1970s and early to mid-1980s. Then in the late 1980s and early 1990s, most cited student drug use as the top concern. For the rest of the 1990s and continuing through today, though, the public has placed lack of financial support at the top of the list.

And they are growing increasingly concerned with achievement testing. Gallup began gauging public sentiment on this topic in 1997. At that time, 20 percent of those polled said there was too much emphasis on it in public schools. By 2004, that number jumped to 32 percent. Among public school parents, the numbers jumped from 19 to 36 percent.

Concerns about school choice and vouchers are also on the rise, as people become more leery of these alternatives. In 1997, 49 percent of those polled nationwide said they supported such options. Last year, only 42 percent were in favor and more than half—54 percent—were opposed.


Life has certainly changed for students. Their classmates are becoming more racially and ethnically diverse.

In 1992, the national breakdown of public schools was 67 percent White, 17 percent Black, 12 percent Hispanic, 4 percent Asian or Pacific Islander and 1 percent American Indian/Alaska Native. By the early 2000s, the number of White students fell to 60 percent, largely because of the increase of Hispanic students, who now make up 18 percent of enrollment.

In his first years of teaching, Richard Siegelman, the retired New York elementary school teacher, had few non-White students. By his retirement, his class was more than one-third Hispanic. During his tenure, the school implemented its first ESOL programs.

When it comes to alcohol and drug use, recent decades have been a mixed bag. Alcohol use among 12- to 17-year-olds dropped steadily in recent decades, from 46 percent in 1982 to 35 percent in 2002. Marijuana use fell from 18 to 16 percent over the same period. But today’s numbers aren’t as good as the early 1990s, with record lows of 7 and 8 percent.

Dropout rates are also on the decline. In the 1970s and early part of the 1980s, the high school dropout rate was about 14 percent. By the late 1980s, it had fallen to less than 13 percent. It’s hovered around 10 percent in the last few years.

As for after-school time, students are at least purporting to be good multi-taskers. In a 1992 survey of fourth-graders by the U.S. Department of Education, 16 percent of students said they didn’t spend any time on homework. By 2000, that figure was down to 10 percent. But 46 percent of today’s students reported watching at least one to two hours of television per night, up from 38 percent in 1992.

“Kids in the 60s had radio and television, but they didn’t have video games or DVDs or iPods or computers,” says Siegelman. “They didn’t have all the alternatives to reading and doing their homework.” His conclusion? “Kids in the 2000s are perhaps less serious about school work” than their predecessors.

The Bad and the Good

In the late 1960s, educators’ headaches came from classroom interruptions and having too little time to teach. In the early 1970s, top complaints included lack of materials, resources, and facilities, and in the latter part of the decade, “incompetent or uncooperative administrators” and student discipline.

"One word about what’s different between now and then—respect," 

— Gary Winship, a high school teacher in Portland, Maine

Krauss, the idealistic young Maryland teacher who looked forward to bringing a healthy dose of the “Free to Be You and Me” utopian vibe to her classroom in 1971, remembers being surprised. “The students were hard to control and the rooms had no walls. Instructional resources were nonexistent. The open-space configuration was supposed to create an environment for team teaching, but nobody ever came to plan with me or to watch me teach. Obviously, things got better.”

Jump forward to 2000, and some new concerns were muscling to the top of the list: student apathy, poverty, and disrespect for teachers.

“One word about what’s different between now and then—respect,” says Gary Winship, a high school teacher in Portland, Maine, who started teaching in 1970 at a rough school. “As tough as the kids were, they respected every teacher. I still teach in a tough school, but now the kids respect nothing—not themselves, teachers, school property, authority, or the value of a good education. As with everything, it’s not all the students, but enough to be noticed.”

For the past three decades, obstacles to education, heavy workloads, extra responsibilities, paperwork, and meetings have taken their toll. But educators’ willingness to stick with teaching has rebounded from a low point in the 1980s.

Then, 36 percent of respondents said that if they left the profession, they “probably” or “certainly” would not return. Today, that’s down to 21 percent.

“I’m still full of lofty ideas,” says Krauss, “and am as proud as ever to call myself an educator. Just don’t ever ask me to bask in the glory of ‘the good old days.’” 

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