TIME Talks and Tallies on Teachers and Schools

By Bill Henk — The September 20 issue of TIME Magazine carried two interesting and informative articles about American schooling that I wanted to bring to your attention.   TIME’s fourth annual national-service issue centered on the many challenges and opportunities associated with public education, specifically those related to teaching.

The first article, entitled “A Call to Action for Public Schools,” uses the forthcoming movie, Waiting for Superman, as a backdrop for talking about K-12 education.  The documentary tells the story of five children and their parents who seek to escape failing neighborhood schools by getting the kids enrolled in high performing charter schools.   The article itself provides a concise summary of  the landscape of American education, replete with facts and surveyed opinions.  To read its abridged e-version, which goes by “What Makes a School Great,” click here.

The second article is called “How to Recruit Better Teachers,” and it focuses on the challenges and opportunities inherent in securing the best talent for America’s classrooms.  A fair amount of the piece deals with alternative career pathways like Teach For America, The New Teacher Project, and the Boston Teacher Residency, but it tells the larger story of the education workforce in our country as well.  Unfortunately all that’s available on-line for this article is a teaser, and you can access it by clicking here.  

What To Expect

I’ll resist the temptation to shamelessly cannibalize the two articles, and instead (1) encourage you to read both in their entirety by picking up a copy of TIME magazine at your local newsstand or by downloading the TIME iPad app and (2) share some telling statistics that were presented across the full articles.  

Some of the data represent the opinions of 1000 American adults polled by TIME, whereas the other information qualifies as hard fact.  My contribution has been to excerpt key statistics, group the points into categories, and sequence the content in a way that will hopefully be meaningful.  

To preface my listing, I need to note that more than two-thirds of the survey respondents think our public schools are in crisis.  They do not believe our children are being prepared for the challenges that lie ahead.  These sentiments take on added gravity when we consider that 50 million kids, or 89% of all American K-12 students, attend public schools.

Anyway, I invite you to ponder the percentages and fractions and draw your own interpretations. 

What the Numbers Say


  • In 2009 more than two-thirds of eighth graders scored below proficient in reading and in math
  •  There has been zero improvement in the reading performance of 17-year olds in the U. S. since 1971


  • America ranks 5th highest among all countries in spending per K-12 student
  •  Per-pupil spending has increased by 123% here between 1971 and 2006
  •  The student-to-teacher ratio has decreased from 22:1 in 1970 to 16:1 in 2007
  •  Despite much smaller elementary class sizes, it turns out that even more affluent, suburban American children perform less well than children in comparable nations


  •  Almost 90% of those polled believe that dramatic school improvement is possible with changes
  •  More than 50% think that school improvement depends on parental involvement
  •  Having more effective teachers represented the answer for 24% 
  •  Student rewards, more time spent on test preparation, and longer school days were each mentioned by 6% of respondents


  • Charters represent a total of only 4% of all schools
  • Charter school enrollment has nearly quadrupled since 2000 (from 339,678 to 1,276,731)
  • Two-thirds of charter schools have waiting lists
  • Only 1 in 6 charter schools significantly outperform traditional schools
  • More than one-third of the charter schools underperform traditional schools


  • Thirty percent believe that teacher effectiveness would be improved by better university training
  • Another 30% believe mentoring by experienced teachers is the key to more competent teachers
  • Higher salaries (11%) and merit pay (20%) were factors associated with bringing about greater teacher effectiveness


  • Almost three-fourths of the respondents (72%) do not support tenure for teachers
  • Some 61% of the poll believe teachers are underpaid, 76% think smart people avoid teaching because salaries are too low, and 56% would pay more in taxes if it meant schools would improve.
  • The ranges of teacher salaries for the bottom 10%, the median, and the top 10%, respectively, are:   $30,970 to $34,280;   $47,100 to $51,180; and   $75,190 to $80,970


  • There are 3.2 million teachers in the U. S.
  • More than half have a Master’s degree or higher.
  • Only 23% of new teachers come from the top third of their college classes; By contrast, In Finland, Singapore, and South Korea, 100% of educators come from the top third
  • Some 47% of new U. S. teachers come from the bottom third of their class
  • By 2014, the nation will need one million new teachers

TIMELY Questions

My hope is that you’ll find at least some of this information about schools and teachers to be new and useful.  These facts and opinions certainly gave rise to some questions for me like: 

  • How could reducing national average class size by more than one-fourth and notably increasing the amount of spending have failed to produce any achievement gains? 
  • Why are charter schools exalted when 85% of them fail to outperform traditional schools, and 35% actually underperform the status quo?   
  • Can higher salaries and merit pay really bring about greater teacher effectiveness? 
  • How can we expect improvement if almost half of new teachers graduate in the bottom third of their high school class?  
  • Given the crisis in education, why would a decided majority of Americans believe dramatic improvement is possible and more than half say they’re willing to pay more in taxes for that improvement?    

As always, your comments are very welcome.  Please consider sharing any questions that the information created for you as well as any new conclusions you’ve drawn or recommendations you now have for K-12 education.

There is urgency in posing the right questions and finding answers.   Young lives are being lost every day. TIME is running out for too many of our school children.    


Reader’s Note:  The full newsstand issue contains a brief, but useful feature (p. 54-55) on what you can do to help public education.  It provides opportunities for recent high school graduates, college students, working adults, and senior citizens. 

  • Photo by Erin Patrice O’Brien for TIME.

3 Responses to “TIME Talks and Tallies on Teachers and Schools”

  1. 1 Rosemary September 21, 2010 at 8:44 pm

    I am eager to read the full articles. This crisis is too big to be solved with just one solution. I believe excellent teachers do play an important roll in resolving the current problems in education. I hope to see the teachers union abolished in my lifetime and a pay system based on performance instituted instead.
    I think successful charter school models should be emulated across the country. One of the most important things which needs to return to education is parental involvement and support. In my experience, parents who invest time in their child’s education generally reap the rewards of a well educated child.


    • 2 billhenk September 24, 2010 at 3:19 am

      I think that the full articles are definitely worth reading, Rosemary. I agree that no one solution will fox the wide and deep problems we have in education, especially in our cities. Unions are coming under a lot of pressure nowadays, so it will be interesting to see how their futures play out. The issue with pay tied to performance centers on how valid and fair any measurement of teaching effectiveness can be. There are places in the country like Denver, Florida, and DC that are taking a stab at the challenge. The really good charter schools should be imitated when possible, but right now there aren’t an abundance of them and there are too many mediocre or worse ones. I commented on the importance of parental involvement in a panel discussion I was part of recently. It definitely makes a big difference in the success school children experience.


  1. 1 Interesting Numbers About Public Education! « Interned In Northfield Trackback on November 26, 2010 at 9:33 am

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