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What Teacher Protests Can—And Can't—Accomplish

The wave of teacher protests in the nation's heartland are turning much-needed attention to the desperately under-resourced public school systems of many states.

But the strikes and demonstrations are likely to produce only marginal improvements for teachers. Any hope of making truly significant changes in the working lives of teachers requires something more: transforming public school teaching from low-standards, low-status work into a performance-based profession that demands taxpayers' respect and support.

Given the importance of teachers to the success of the nation's schools, teacher pay today is shameful in many parts of the country. The national average starting salary is only $36,000 and collectively teachers are earning less than they were 25 years ago, after inflation. Too many are teaching with outdated textbooks in crumbling buildings.

Part of the problem is that state education spending cratered following the implosion of the economy a decade ago and hasn't recovered in places with weak economies (a problem that would have been much worse if the federal government hadn't given states billions of dollars to save teachers' job in the wake of the recession).

The ascendency of spending-averse Republican leaders in a number of states since the recession has also been a factor, while some state lawmakers have used their education resources to shore up insolvent teacher pension systems rather than increase salaries. What's more, the large number of teachers in the country (teaching is the nation's single largest occupation) makes even modest pay hikes expensive--a $10,000 raise for every U.S. public school teacher would cost $33 billion.

But another important reason teacher pay lags is that teaching continues to have the features—and, as a result, the low status—of blue-collar work in most of the nation's public school districts, with factory-like work rules, few opportunities for advancement, and few rewards for performance.

Gains are likely to be scant under such conditions. The recent statewide teacher strike in West Virginia was hailed as a big win. But in the end the state's educators got a temporary reprieve from rapidly rising insurance premiums and a 4 percent pay hike above what Gov. Jim Justice had already pledged for next year. That's about $46 more a week for the average West Virginia teacher, before taxes. Helpful for families struggling to make ends meet. But hardly enough to earn teaching the respect it deserves.

Only in a few places, like Tennessee and the District of Columbia, has teaching evolved into a performance-based profession, where entry standards are higher, teachers can take on meaningful new roles and responsibilities without leaving the occupation, and where outstanding performance is rewarded with compensation that in the nation's capital tops $130,000 a year.

[Read More: How D.C. Schools are Revolutionizing Teaching]

Teacher unions have themselves partly to blame for the profession's plight. They continue to focus on wages, hours, and working conditions, resisting reforms to public education and the teaching profession such as school accountability and performance-based teacher tenure that would make taxpayers more likely to open their checkbooks.

Compounding the unions' problems, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected in the coming weeks to strike down the "agency fees" that non-union public employees pay for union representation, a ruling that would diminish teacher unions' revenue and respect. It's another reason for them to take bolder steps to increase teaching's status.

“We don’t have the right to be called professionals—and we will never convince the public that we are,” Albert Shanker, the founding father of teacher unionism, told a teacher convention years ago, “unless we are prepared honestly to decide what constitutes competence in our profession and what constitutes incompetence and apply those definitions to ourselves and our colleagues.”

Shanker was right. Only by making performance matter in hiring, firing, promotion and pay, by giving teachers leadership opportunities, and by taking other steps to treat them as professionals rather than as so many assembly line workers, will teaching earn the respect and rewards that true professions enjoy and that teaching deserves.

[Read More: Elevating Teaching Lifts a City's Schools]

Thomas Toch is the director of FutureEd, an independent think tank at Georgetown University's McCourt  School of Public Policy. This blog post was first published in Education Post.