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…
- lead teacher, teaching a few courses to students but primarily coaching other teachers in the building;
- instructional coach, traveling to different schools around the district to coach other teachers;
- teacher mentor, traveling to different schools around the district to coach first-year teachers;
- school counselor/psychologist/social worker, working with students on social-emotional needs outside of the classroom;
- dean/athletic director/assistant principal/principal, running different aspects of the school program/building;
- a position with the district office, writing curricula, managing technology, leading reform initiatives, or running the district as an assistant superintendent or superintendent;
- any number of positions with an education non-profit, such as DonorsChoose.org, Teach For America, or POSSE;
- policy analyst for a state government, the federal government, or a think-tank;
- professor, teaching and conducting research at a university;
- researcher, conducting research at a university or with a private research group;
- writer/reporter for a newspaper or blog (anything from the Chicago Tribune or Washington Post to Education Week or True/Slant)
- 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
- 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.