In the early 1940s, a teacher in Arkansas decided that her profession deserved more recognition, so she gave herself an assignment: She wrote a letter to every governor and numerous other political and educational leaders, asking for their help.
One of Mattie Whyte Woodridge’s letters eventually came to the attention of Eleanor Roosevelt, the former First Lady who not only agreed, but actually petitioned Congress to consider setting aside a day to honor those who teach.
Mrs. Roosevelt said she backed this crusade because “teachers are, of course, among the most important people in our communities. Day in and day out, they are at work preparing the future citizens of the U.S.”
Congress authorized the first national day honoring teachers in 1953, setting the foundation for what is now celebrated during the first full week of each May. It’s a fitting place on the calendar, given how close it is to the end of the school year.
Here in the commonwealth, there are more than 125,000 current and retired educators who work or have worked in our public schools, according to the Kentucky Teachers’ Retirement System, and there are tens of thousands of others who have filled the same roles in our postsecondary and private schools.
Combined, they make up around five percent of our adult population, but no other group of people has had a bigger impact on our lives. As one anonymous quote puts it, “Teaching is the one profession that creates all other professions.”
Their work over the past several decades has been one for the history books, with our elementary and secondary schools having seen their academic profiles rise significantly since the passage of the Kentucky Education Reform Act in 1990.
Early this year, Education Week’s annual “Quality Counts” report put us 28th among the states when taking a broad look at our schools and how we fund them, but we came in 16th in the subcategory looking just at academic achievement from kindergarten through high school.
In taking a longer view, a 2012 Harvard study said Kentucky tied for fifth when measuring the progress our students had made over the previous two decades in math, reading and science.
It is worth noting that Kentucky has 2,300 teachers who have become National Board certified, a ranking that is as difficult to achieve as it is prestigious. Only seven states have more of these teachers in their classrooms.
As for higher education, the Council on Postsecondary Education reported last week that our public and private universities and colleges awarded just over 59,000 degrees and credentials in 2016-2017, a 7.4 percent increase over the previous school year. CPE says we’re on track to having 60 percent of the state’s working-age population holding a postsecondary credential by 2030, up from the current 45 percent.
These statistics paint an extremely positive picture, but there is no doubt that our educational system is at a focal point. We are searching for a new education commissioner, for example, after the Kentucky Board of Education – with seven new members appointed last month – essentially forced former Commissioner Stephen Pruitt to resign even though the previous board had praised him just four months earlier.
His interim replacement is a major proponent of charter schools, which threaten to undermine public-school funding, and he just recommended that the state assume effective control of Jefferson County Public Schools, which has a sixth of Kentucky’s entire K-12 population.
Next month, meanwhile, CPE President Bob King will retire after nearly a decade in that role, meaning the state will be looking for new leadership at the level as well.
As we search for their successors, we just ended a tumultuous legislative session whose chief highlight was the thousands of teachers who rallied at the Capitol and back home against a major overhaul of the retirement system that has served their profession well for 80 years.
That new law is now in the hands of the courts because of numerous legal questions. If it is upheld, however, teachers hired in 2019 and beyond will pay into a retirement plan that will no longer guarantee them the same benefits current teachers now receive.
Those of us who oppose this law worry that it will make it more difficult to draw the type of workforce our students need and deserve. At the same time, we have a state budget that only gives our students a single dime more every school day for the next two years, a funding level that is still below where it was a decade ago when accounting for inflation. There is also no money set aside for textbooks or professional development.
We have come too far to let these challenges undermine our progress, and I am committed to doing all I can to make sure we don’t take a single step back. I know many others share that same mission, which is why this year’s National Teacher Appreciation Week is more important than ever. We must never forget that their success is truly our own.
So, if you are a teacher, thank you for all that you have done and continue to do for your students and the commonwealth The rest of us will always be grateful — this week and every week. If she could be with us, I know Mattie Whyte Woodridge would be proud.