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The Pyramid of Education

ellenv's picture

The educational system mirrors the food/nutrition pyramid. This pyramid of education contains 5 tiers with the top tier containing the educational theory and the theorists that define what it is to learn and educate. The second tier of the pyramid contains the federal laws and policies that decide how education is to be defined and practiced in a uniform manner across society. These laws and policies are often based off of the educational theories, but at times they are developed in response to domestic and international trends. This could mean putting a strong focus on math and science education as the U.S. did during the Cold War. While these policies and laws exist in principle, it is the next tier of the pyramid – the state and local government – that refines these policies to reflect the needs and opinions of a more specific community. It is not until the fourth tier down that implementation can begin to take place. In this fourth tier is the school structure that consists of principals, guidance counselors, and the administration. In these tiers, specific goals, rules, and regulations are concocted and put in place for a very specific population of students. It is not until the fifth and final tier that the classroom appears. In theory, the classroom consists on two groups of individuals: teachers and students.

In reality, teachers and students are not the only ones functioning within the walls of the classroom. The classroom also contains the educational theories, federal, state and local policies, and the school rules and regulations that are found in the tiers above the classrooms in the pyramid of education. In this sense, the classroom is being asked to support the weight of numerous social and political structures. This means that when a new teacher walks into a classroom, they are not only functioning as individual, they are also being asked to reflect the opinions, beliefs, and values of the greater society. In this top-down approach to education, teachers have little power but play an important and role in society. This leads to one of the biggest and persistent problems in the educational system: teacher retention.

On average, “50% of new teacher leave the profession within the first five years of teaching” (1) and when you consider teachers who did not receive traditional teacher training, the attrition rate “can be as high as 60 percent” (2). Generally, the schools that have the hardest time retaining teachers are the ones that have the fewest resources. With fewer resources and lower salaries, teachers are more likely to leave such teaching positions and either move to schools with higher salaries and more resources or leave the profession all together (2). This means that while teacher attrition is a significant problem for the majority of public schools, it is the schools that are bearing a considerable amount of weight from the social/economic structures outside of the classroom that are having the greatest difficulty. What should be noted, however, is that “the high demand for teachers is not being driven by an undersupply of entering teachers, but by an excessive demand for teacher replacements that is driven by a staggering teacher turnover” (2). There are plenty of individuals who are entering the profession; the problem is that they do not stay for a long period of time.

Teacher attrition has an effect on individuals inside and outside of the classroom. The most direct influence that teacher attrition has is on the students. Even though teacher education programs are likely to help prospective teachers to some extent, there is always a certain amount of learning and growing that must take place inside the classroom. For the most part, teachers do not reach their full potential within their first few years of teaching; instead, a solid grasp of putting educational theory into practice does not come until individuals have been in the classroom for a significant amount of time. With a large number of new teachers entering the profession and then quickly leaving it, students are continually confronted with teacher after teacher who has not yet figured out how to manage a classroom and teach to different learning styles.

At the same time, teacher attrition can be costly for the school system. Since new teachers are less accustomed to working in a classroom, the school system often has to provide a certain amount of training for such teachers. In districts that have been deemed “hard-to-staff,” there are often “signing bonuses, subject matter stipends, and other recruiting costs” (3) that the district is responsible for. When all of these costs are added together, “a conservative national estimate of the cost of replacing public school teachers who have dropped out of the profession is $2.2 billion a year” (3).

Low teacher retention rates can be attributed to several economic and social rates. The clear economic factor that leads to low teacher retention is the average wages paid to teachers. Oftentimes, teachers are being asked to be available after school for meetings with parents and students or by e-mail and this extra time is not factored into their pay. Teachers are also paid less than many other professions that require some sort of training (e.g. lawyers) and because of that it does not seem as lucrative as other professions. On a social level, the profession of teaching is not elevated to a very high status. A lot of times it is seen as a steppingstone to other professions in education (principles, policy makers, administrators etc.) or it is portrayed as a temporary profession to be pursued for only a few years after getting out of college. Socially, then, teaching is placed on a lower level than many other professions.

The educational reform that is currently proposed does not necessarily combat the problem of teacher retention. In an attempt to eliminate ineffective teachers, the stress in current reform policy is on accountability that is tied to standardized test scores. While this helps increase the quality of the teacher in the classroom, it does not help with the fact that there is a limited number of individuals that are making teaching their career.

Turning teaching from a profession with a high turnover rate to a stable and competitive profession would have number of social, economic, and political implications. On the social side, this turnaround would require that the overall perception of teaching as a career would have to be elevated to the social level of high-powered jobs. Seeing as much of a job’s status is tied to income, this would mean that teachers’ salaries would have to be raised to comparable level as lawyers, politicians, and doctors. Given that there is currently a limited amount of funds directed towards teachers’ salaries, this change in economic point of view does not seem likely. Politically, the main change that would have to happen would to be to eliminate most forms of standardized testing. This form of accountability often influences how and why teachers teach in the way that they do. The increased pressure to continually improve test scores causes teachers to teach to the test rather than focus on developing the thinking and critical thinking of their students. Very few new teachers enter the profession with the desire to teach a state or federal mandated curriculum.

The challenge of eliminating such accountability measures is that it would be very hard to identify teachers who are working at an undesirable level. While there might be a higher teacher retention rate, there would also be a higher rate of teachers who are not effective teachers. This raises the question whether or not new measures of accountability need to be developed and what such measures would look like. While an annual review of teachers based on lesson plans, recommendations, and periodic observations would be ideal, economic factors do not allow for such measures. Economically, it is not feasible to restructure the measures accountability because annual review of teachers would require a great deal of school resources to hire new staff to review teachers.

Increasing teacher salaries would also be a challenge for the educational system. Should there be an increase in the base pay offered to teachers, school systems would be investing a lot of money into new teachers that might not necessarily stay in the profession despite the increased salary. At the same time, a system of increasing pay based on performance would require resources that many school systems do not have.

The social challenges that would arise in increasing teacher retention rate revolve around the history of teaching as a profession. Because teaching was traditionally a women’s profession, it originally did not receive the same status socially as other male-dominated professions. Even though there is a greater gender balance in the education profession today, many of the same perceptions and social opinions of the occupation remain.  In order to change the social status of teaching, the extensive history of the profession would have to be challenged and transformed.

            Overall, teachers are given a lot less credit than they are due. In the pyramid of education, it is their classrooms that are supporting the existing social and political structures of the country. The pyramid and the structures it contains are not very fluid and under this system, the classrooms will always be at the bottom of the pyramid while theories maintain their high status at the top of the pyramid. If, then, this rigid structure of public education does not allow for discourse and movement between social and political structures, what should a new and improved model look like? Should it have all structures on an equal level or should it retain some level of structure but allow for more movement between the levels? It seems that in order to reform the educational system, the current structure has to be challenged before any progress can be made in the system as a whole.



(1     (1) Dill, Vicky and Delia Stafford. “Teacher Retention a Critical National Problem.” 14 April, 2008.

        (2) “Unraveling the ‘Teacher Shortage’ Problem: Teacher Retention is Key.” 20 Aug., 2002.  The National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future. North Carolina State University.

       (3) “Teacher Attrition: A Costly Loss to the National and to the States.” Aug. 2005. Alliance for Excellent Education.




Paul Grobstein's picture

teacher retention and the status of teaching

"when a new teacher walks into a classroom, they are not only functioning as individual, they are also being asked to reflect the opinions, beliefs, and values of the greater society. In this top-down approach to education, teachers have little power ... This leads to one of the biggest and persistent problems in the educational system: teacher retention."

Interesting/useful to have explicit attention drawn to the teacher retention problem.  Certainly higher salaries and greater investement in support resources would help but I hear in this a deeper and perhaps more significant problem needing to be addressed: a perception of the teacher as an enactor of mandates over which they themselves have very little influence, as a factory worker carrying out procedures and practices created by others.  I'm not sure I'd be willing to stay in such a position regardless of salary and other economic supports, no matter how high, and certainly such a perception is likely to a relatively lower social status for teachers.  Maybe the key here is to make it better known that effective education cannot be done by factory workers?  that the process itself is antithetical to "carrying out procedures and practices created by others" since it depends fundamentally on interacting with diverse individuals and so on continual creative responses to variable and somewhat unpredictable circumstances?   

Its the creative challenges that make teaching an appealing activity for me, and its the experiences with the creative challenges that, I think, make my understandings importantly relevant for other levels of the "pyramid."  Maybe what we need is more teachers who think of themselves as something other than factory workers, and so insist on co-constructive education not only in the classroom but in social/political/economic systems as well?