With persistent attacks on teachers being bandied around because of the situation in Wisconsin, I thought it would be good to comment on this.
While I agree that the teachers unions have brought about part of this because of two very important and very stupid conditions they don't like changed: teacher pay based on seniority instead of performance and the constant harping of smaller class sizes; to blame the unions is both misguided and ridiculous. The only thing that unions are responsible for is making things harder to improve, but they are not responsible for how they got this way.
In my opinion the number one reason that teaching is under-valued is due to the success of feminism. It used to be that if you were a highly-gifted woman like let's say Danica McKellar, one of the best jobs available for you would be math teachers. Because being a TV star/math-book writer was not easily within reach.
Now, this is an extreme example and they've been women scientist for a long time but a cursory look at history shows that when ENIAC (the computer) was built it was the women who mostly programmed it but the men who got most of the credit.
So back then to get excellent teachers you didn't need fantastic pay, and since this was a respectable job, respect was given to both male and female teachers.
But now the common saying is "those who can't, teach." This profession has become not only undervalued monetarily by society but also undervalued as a profession.
Part of the reason for this is explained in the book the Learning Gap is that all the prestige of teaching and all the research on teaching moved to the University level. So teachers became subjugated to University professor and cases like my grandmother a Columbia University Master's holding home econ teacher virtually non-existent. How can teachers be held in high regard if they are considered mere peons and non-practicing "teachers" in Universities develop what the 'best practices' are? In my opinion that's how we end up with the 'small class is better mantra' of today (Small is good, btw, I just don't think it's a blanket thing. Twenty four kids is I think a good target. Less than fifteen is in most cases unnecessary.)
Of course this is not ubiquitous, Massachusetts has a great program where teachers can get a masters in Education while doing team teaching assisting, and you can end up with great smart creative teachers like my sister who teaches first grade in Boston.
Teachers are responsible for children for the largest part of their day and have an incredible influence on them and therefore the future of this country. Is it not worth investing in them??
Then there is the problem of principals. I was shocked to learn how much principals make in the US, and how little they do. They for one don't teach, and more importantly from conversations with my sister, many don't seem to value teaching either. Teaching is NOT and industrial process. The magic of teaching is in the push and pull between the student and the teacher. It's more like coaching than assembling a computer/gadget/whatever. Principals shouldn't be antagonistic to this process. If teachers are the front line, principals and administrators should be doing what they can to make the teachers succeed. Like in a war it's not the generals in Washington who win it, it's the soldiers on the ground, sea and air who do. The greatness of a general comes from his use of his troops not from his ability to placate his superiors. (Compare General Lee and whoever was the North's first General in the civil war).
Which leads me to who does teaching serve. There is this mistaken idea that teaching is serving the parents or the school boards. It's not. It's serving the students, particularly the person the student will become in the future. But not his or hers employability, that's a secondary goal to the first and most important goal of teaching: preserving democracy.
In democracy power is shared not concentrated on the elite, or the highly educated, or the rich or the powerful. So the price of Democracy is an educated electorate, for how can an electorate make an educated decision if they don't understand the issues? (Hence people dismissing global warming).
Making teaching work is not a simple labor dispute, teacher don't assemble gadgets. Teachers hold the future of the nation in their hands. What's a hand here is no less than the future of this nation and the freedom of Democracy. Let's not kid ourselves. This is important stuff.