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Jan. 23 2010 - 4:27 pm | 1,397 views | 3 recommendations | 16 comments

Why too many unsuccessful students become teachers

While debating with a colleague the merits of Teach For America–the non-profit organization that trains recent college graduates to teach in low-income schools–I reminded her that in the 2008-2009 school year, 44% of Teach For America teachers increased their students’ achievement by 1.5 grade levels or more. All of these teachers were in their first- or second-year and only 2% of them had teaching degrees.

My question to her was, why aren’t graduates of education schools, many of whom end up teaching in places not nearly as challenging as the under-resourced schools where Teach For America corps members end up, achieving the same results? After all, those with teaching degrees spent 2.5 years engaged in coursework about teaching and 4 months (or more, depending on the program) as student-teachers. Teach For America teachers, on the other hand, spent only 2 months engaged in coursework and teaching during the summer before starting to teach in the fall.

She argued that Teach For America teachers achieved such results because they generally are more talented than those who go through teacher education programs. TFA could get those people for the short-term (a two-year commitment), but most would not go through education schools because teaching could not bring them the salary or prestige available in other fields. Thus, we were left with a public school system in which 1 in 5 female teachers (females comprised 82% of public school teachers in 2005) graduated in the bottom 40% of their high school class. (This statistic comes from a recent analysis published in the American Economic Review, which you need to be a member to access; however, you can see the graph from that paper here.)

In other words, we have entrusted the academic achievement of our nation’s students to many people who were not high-achievers themselves. Whether or not this matters is a debatable point. Some believe prior academic achievement has little bearing on one’s effectiveness as a teacher. I happen to think it matters quite a bit. Moving forward from that assumption…

What can be done? In my opinion, the problem of teacher quality begins with how education is marketed by schools of education. Undergraduate students who may want more options, more money, or more prestige down the road are turned off by the fact that the only option presented to them–aside from becoming a principal or superintendent–is a 30-year teaching career, so many of them choose not to apply to teacher preparation programs.

Schools of education therefore need to become comfortable marketing education as more than teaching. College undergraduates need to know that a teaching degree starts their career in the field of education, but that the two are not synonymous. They certainly can teach for 30 years, but they also can teach for 3 or 5 or 10 years and move on to other opportunities in the field (some of which require more schooling, while others do not), like…

  1. lead teacher, teaching a few courses to students but primarily coaching other teachers in the building;
  2. instructional coach, traveling to different schools around the district to coach other teachers;
  3. teacher mentor, traveling to different schools around the district to coach first-year teachers;
  4. school counselor/psychologist/social worker, working with students on social-emotional needs outside of the classroom;
  5. dean/athletic director/assistant principal/principal, running different aspects of the school program/building; 
  6. a position with the district office, writing curricula, managing technology, leading reform initiatives, or running the district as an assistant superintendent or superintendent;
  7. any number of positions with an education non-profit, such as DonorsChoose.org, Teach For America, or POSSE;
  8. policy analyst for a state government, the federal government, or a think-tank;
  9. professor, teaching and conducting research at a university;
  10. researcher, conducting research at a university or with a private research group;
  11. writer/reporter for a newspaper or blog (anything from the Chicago Tribune or Washington Post to Education Week or True/Slant)
  12. consultant, working with schools, districts, or states in an area where you are an expert (e.g., special education, curriculum development, some aspect of pedagogy); or
  13. lawyer, representing states, school districts, or individual clients.

This list could be expanded, but you get the idea. There are many things outside of teaching that a teaching degree can lead to. Unfortunately, the emphasis in schools of education seems to be on developing career teachers, which for many people is not desirable (and not likely, since half of beginning teachers leave the profession within 5 years).

I submit that at least some extremely talented college students who end up in fields like medicine, law, business, engineering, or science, might choose to go into schools of education if they knew that the field held more for them than being a teacher for the rest of their lives. This is not to say that learning about educational consulting will suddenly convince thousands of potential pre-med students to apply to schools of education. But understanding the full range of career options available to those with undergraduate teaching degrees might result in 1% of the students planning to go into the 5 fields I named above instead going into education. At a large university, this might mean an extra two dozen highly talented applicants (presumably from the top quartile of their high school classes) entering the education school each year. This, in turn, would push out some of those who were in the bottom 40%.

Multiplied across universities and over a number of years, this could mean tens of thousands of talented teachers entering public school classrooms over the course of a decade. This influx of talented teachers, combined with a decrease in less-talented teachers, could lead to increases in student learning. This is not a silver-bullet answer to the problems facing our K-12 education system, but I think it’s an idea worth considering.


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    This is interesting. Three thoughts…What do any of these other jobs pay? It’s well known that teaching is, apart from some rare affluent suburban schools, not a well-paid career and who wants to be broke forever? Another issue that seems really off-putting to me whenever I’ve considered it is the endless, tedious bureaucracy of working in almost any educational setting. It looks like a ticket of red tape, rules and regulations — many bright and creative people flee such environments, no matter how alluring teaching, per se, might be.
    Also, the terrible push to “teach to the test” which seems to permeate all public schools.

    The only kind of teaching that looks attractive to me would be at a charter or private school, for these reasons.

    Bright students enjoy many other options; until or unless education looks a lot more alluring, they’ll keep choosing anything but.

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    First, I suggest you be wary of pro-TFA data that comes directly from TFA itself.

    Issues with TFA aside, however, I have to disagree that we need more “good” students going into teaching. In my time in the College of Education at Michigan State University–one of the top primary and secondary teacher education schools in the country–I met almost no one who was *not* a good student in high school.

    In fact, most of my peers had never failed academically. Very few had even struggled.

    What I saw at MSU was an incredibly homogeneous group who all thought that school, as it exists now, essentially works. They all did well, it was easy. Anyone who couldn’t do it was either dumb, or “underprivileged” and needed someone better to come help them. (That attitude–not the potential pay rate–is part of what drove me out of the College of Ed.)

    Teachers who have never failed don’t understand failure. They fear it. That fear gets passed along to students. The Atlantic article talks about students who dropped out after failing a test. Dropping out was less scary than failing school completely. It also tells of their teacher who cried when he “failed.” Those students needed a teacher who could take failure in stride, and demonstrate that it is not evil but an opportunity, not someone who saw failure as apocalyptic.

    If anything, we need more teachers who were not traditionally “good” students. If everyone in education thinks the system works, because it worked for them, there is no motivation to evolve and rethink. If a teacher never failed, or fears failure, that is more dangerous than a teacher who understands failure and how to overcome it.

    • collapse expand

      Dear Facebook User – Two points…

      1) With regard to TFA’s data, I think it’s worth noting that in addition to the data I cited above, TFA posts results of independent research done on the organization at http://teachforamerica.org/about/research.htm. Some of these studies have been commissioned at the request of TFA; in other words, TFA people to investigate it and judge what it’s doing so the organization can pass along this information to the public (which is important because they do get some federal funding). Contrast this with public school districts and public university education schools, two other entities that receive our tax dollars. Public school districts choose not to tell anyone how well students do in different teachers’ classrooms, which means the only information available to parents or the general public comes from word-of-mouth anecdotes from parents of past students. Since annual test data are aggregated for the grade level of a particular school, you might know that 80% 3rd graders do well at school X, but you don’t know if 100% are doing well with teacher Y while only 60% are doing well with teacher Z. And education schools *can’t* tell anyone how much their teachers impact student achievement because they don’t even collect that type of data on their graduates. (To be fair, I believe a few ed schools currently are attempting to set up systems to collect such data.) I am by no means a TFA apologist, but I think the organization has been more transparent than perhaps any other education organization when it comes to sharing data about its effectiveness.

      2) With regard to failure…First, there is a difference between failing to do well in a class or two during high school and failing to do well in most classes in high school. For example, a student could struggle to keep a C- in calculus during senior year, and maybe even fail the final exam. I would classify this as having experienced failure. That same student, though, could have attained As and Bs in all his other classes during high school. So to think that people in your program never experienced failure just because they did well in school is a big assumption. Second, the teacher in the story cried because he failed his students, not because he failed himself. These are two very different things. And having spent a few years teaching high school in low-income areas, I know exactly why he cried. He realized that students passing that test can be, in some cases, a life or death decision–something that encourages them to finish high school, or something that pushes them out the door to life in the underground economy of the streets. I think a major problem in urban schools has been that teachers have been too willing to take failure “in stride,” and I applaud that teacher’s passion and commitment to seeing all of his kids pass the test and graduate.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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    When you decide to have surgery do you want a doctor who has performed one surgery in her 1st year of practice or someone who has performed 40 surgeries in her 20th year of practice? I’d want the experienced doctor. The same with teachers.

    There is no data that is valid to date that supports Teach for America teachers outperform experienced teachers, despite the cherry picked test data presented here. And most TfA teachers leave after 2 years because they can’t handle the workload and pressure.

    Teaching is not a glamorous profession and the pay is substandard relative to the demands.I taught for 24 years and there is no way any teacher is competent to manage the diverse learning, behavioral and social needs of 70 to 100 students per day after one summer of cramming.

    The University of TN college of Education requires a one year teaching internship after completing a 4 yr degree and our interns & principals tell us they are better prepared than most beginning teachers from other institutions.

    • collapse expand

      jcgrim – You claim (without providing evidence to back up that claim) that “most TfA teachers leave after 2 years because they can’t handle the workload and pressure.” First, it’s worth noting that 98% of TFA teachers aren’t education majors, which means they never planned on going into teaching. They signed up for a two-year commitment. Despite not having planned to go into the profession, though, a 2008 Harvard study found that “60.5 percent voluntarily remained in the teaching profession for more than two years and 35.5 percent stayed in teaching for more than four years” (study summary available at http://www.gse.harvard.edu/news_events/features/2008/05/21_project.php). So out of TFA’s pool of teachers, most of whom (a) never planned to pursue teaching as a career, and (b) had law school, med school, or some other graduate program or career option waiting for them after 2 years, 36% remained in teaching after 4 years. Yet out of all beginning teachers–almost all of whom spent years being trained in teacher preparation programs and chose teaching as a career–only 50% remain in the profession after 5 years. When the TFA teachers trained for other careers stay well beyond their commitments, but people who were trained for a career in teaching drop out early, it makes me wonder who, in fact, “can’t handle the workload and pressure.”

      Finally, the reason there are no valid data to prove TFA teachers are better is that school districts won’t release individual teacher data that’s connected to student test scores. This is not some mysterious question that can’t be answered. We could settle this argument in a week with some basic statistical analyses (using a value-add model that accounts for growth, therefore not penalizing the teacher for not having the student “at standard” by the end of the year), if only our public schools and teachers’ unions would release the data. To lay the burden on TFA, which actually releases data on teacher performance to the public, is completely unfair. (See my other comment for more thoughts on TFA, school districts, and data.)

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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    In 2003, after being laid off, I started teaching part-time as an adjunct instructor at a local community college, teaching mathematics.

    I’ve got a BS in applied mathematics and a MA in statistics. I’ve got more math courses under my belt than most HS teachers, however, to teach HS, I would have to go back to school, get the undergraduate education credits (18) and student teach. I’ve been teaching as an adjunct, going on seven years now, and my average number of hours teaching per day is about 4. That’s about 1 less than a HS teacher.

    There are many people out there in similar circumstances-we would like to go into the secondary school system, accepting the cut in pay but doing something that we like and find personally rewarding. The problem is that the system in place in most states makes it extraordinarily difficult to get a teaching credential, outside the normal route. TFA has limited slots, and, besides, for someone like me, I already have the classroom management skills that TFA emphasizes, and the educational background.

    There needs to be a third route along with the existing education majors in undergrad school, and TFA. There are plenty of us out there, we need to find a path into the system that works for us as well.

  5. collapse expand

    Mr. Salmonowicz,

    While I happen to believe that one’s success at anything is unrelated to high school grade, what I know both from my own personal experience and from that of many teachers is that success in the class is first and foremost about “classroom management”. If one cannot control the classroom, no learning is going to happen. This is also the reason for the high burn-out rate for starting teachers, they cannot control the classroom and the kids eat them alive. I had a fellow teacher who threw up before everyday because of the intense anxiety that she experienced before the beginning of each school day. The greatest predictor of how successful a teacher is how well they manage the classroom. They certainly have to know what they are teaching, particularly in math. However, their own academic prowess is really irrelevant.

    • collapse expand

      Yes and no. Classroom management is tough for a number of reasons, including

      1. No reinforcement of classroom discipline from parents, and often from administrators

      2. Too large size of classrooms, especially in stressed geographical areas of society

      3. Teachers have so many other areas to cover in college that things like classroom management aren’t tackled until student teaching (think med students and bedside manner training)

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  6. collapse expand

    In response to the adjunct college instructor: I agree that we need better alternative means of certification, especially for people in your position. However, it’s important to realize that the skills needed to teach in primary and secondary are not the same as those needed post-secondary.

    Teaching in a primary or secondary school requires a much higher degree of, for lack of a better word, life-coaching. By college or university, you can rely on subject expertise and an ability to explain it, but that’s not enough in secondary–the best university professors go beyond, as well.

    There’s a reason good teacher training programs spend so much time on educational and developmental psychology and keep future teachers in contact with real students. You can’t expect all secondary students to behave and react like small adults, and dealing with that takes skills and practice not required to be an effective post-secondary instructor.

  7. collapse expand

    I believe the reason why more talented people are not going into teaching is a combination of three things: 1.) the generally frakked up nature of our school systems 2.) a lack of support from parents 3.) an unwillingness to pay for good talent.

    I derive these factors from discussions I have had with two people I know who have been or are teachers. One was a teacher at a Pittsburgh high school who quit and decided to become a college level history professor, the other is a currently working teacher in Philadelphia.

    The high school teacher came to the conclusion that she was one of the few people at her school who were truly interested in teaching. Many would essentially take the day off on Fridays, leading to backlash against her when she taught on that day. She also had serious issues with students who refused to submit to discipline. She had experiences with one student who threw a desk at her, as well as another who began stalking her and giving her drawings of herself riddled with bullets.

    The other, in Philadelphia, has found that the parents of her students are essentially enablers who take little interest in how their children do academically and do not discipline them when they misbehave in school, often taking the children’s side when they get detention.

    The upshot of all this is that most people who have other options, unless they have an out and out vocation for teaching, would probably not be interested in teaching at the elementary and high school levels with serious monetary incentives.

  8. collapse expand

    America values its teachers less than cops…Its all about supporting our troops not our teachers…I’d like to see a yellow ribbon that says support our schools…Than we wont need all those Jarheads to end up teaching in the end.

    Also…Tenor-the problem.
    “Teachers” dont know specific trades…
    Allowing more people to teach is a good thing…A community should be allowed to raise a child. A community of people with skills that are specific and not just those who have been taught how to teach…Isnt that silly? Going to school to learn how to teach a class?

    In the end its all about money…Noone with any skills will want to teach because they could be making the big bucks with oh say…Microsoft or Google…

    If I spent a lifetime trying to figure out how to teach I’d would have gotten nowhere and managed to frustrate myself while wondering why that kid right out of college managed to connect so well with all his students…
    Some thoughts(.)(.)and boobs:)

  9. collapse expand

    Yet another anti-teacher rant- and people in the comments section advocating lowering teacher pay- how wonderful. Exactly how is the 1.5 grade level assessed – through norm referenced tests? And was any other skill tested other than multiple choice tests? These tests don’t allow students to create meaning – the test makers construct the meaning. So if no writing or other analytical skills were tested for, we really don’t have a good idea how students are progressing.

    It is interesting to note that I get students from a middle school whose scores have risen yet these students could not create a PowerPoint, create an email account, attach a file and had never seen a primary source document. So what exactly does it mean in today’s society to increase 1.5 grade levels? In what? Knowledge must be balanced with skills.
    Teaching is a profession that is part skill and part art, not a missionary adventure. Do you want a surgeon with two years experience or 10 years experience? Perhaps teaching will go the way of being an airline pilot which used to be a prestigious well paid career – now it pays 60,000 a year and pensions have been cut. Many pilots work second jobs. Do you want your airline pilot working a second job? I don’t.

    Before we advocate a race to the bottom in yet another profession, lets figure out exactly what we want students to know today and how we are assessing it. It better be more than a standardized test. I won’t argue with your colleague over whether her recruits are more “talented” than I am – but I will argue that I know what my students need to know far more than those in it for a two year stint.

    And please, we don’t need more teachers leaving the classroom after 3, 5 or 10 years. We need them to stay in the classroom and see that as a profession. We don’t need any more coaches or policy analyts, please. They simply divert money away from the classroom where it is needed. Increase teacher pay and you will see more talent in the classroom- but that will never happen.

    • collapse expand

      Barbara – To your point about not needing any more policy analysts…perhaps if more former teachers were in those types of positions, we wouldn’t have with a system that assesses students on standardized tests alone. TFA used to have a marketing slogan that went something like, “Ninety-six percent of our nation’s senators have law degrees. Imagine if 96 percent of them had taught for two years in an underresourced school.” Former teachers in influential positions both inside and outside of education can serve as advocates for students and teachers, and ensure that national policies and programs are designed in a way that takes into account what actually happens in our nation’s classrooms.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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    About Me

    I'm a Teach For America alum and spent three years as a high school teacher on the west and south sides of Chicago. I've conducted research on turnaround schools with a team from the University of Virginia, consulted for school districts across the country, and done work with New Leaders for New Schools, the Consortium on Chicago School Research, and DonorsChoose.org. Currently I'm finishing my PhD from UVa's Curry School of Education.

    My work has been published in Education Week, the Phi Delta Kappan, and a number of academic journals, and I'm a co-author of the book Teachers' Guide to School Turnarounds. I also contribute monthly to GOOD, the website "for people who give a damn": www.good.is/community/MichaelSalmonowicz

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    I am a contributor for GOOD, the website “for people who give a damn.” You can read my June column here. Past columns can be found here.