Editorial: Restoring the Prestige of Teaching

This Week’s Stanford Daily included a brilliant editorial on restoring the prestige of the teaching profession. In my personal opinion, the pervasive idea that teachers are ‘prestigious baby-sitters” or that “those who can’t do… teach” are  harming our educational culture. Consistently, those who enter education do so as a ‘fall-back’ position consistently have lower GPAs and test scores than their peers. If we want to improve the quality of education our children receive, then we need to make the profession of teaching more enticing, competitive, and respected.

I’m posting it in its entirety here, but again, visit Stanford Daily to respond and engage with others on this very topic.

Editorial: Restoring the prestige of teaching

Wednesday, January 25th, 2012
By 

Ask the Stanford Class of 2012 what they plan to do next year, and you will receive many impressive responses. There are countless students aspiring to prestigious professions as doctors, lawyers and academics. There are those entering the high-tech industries of software, programming and engineering. There are also those choosing to enter the arenas of business, consulting and investment banking. All of these fields are united in their high salaries and resultant prestige, and it is generally no surprise when another bright and high-achieving Stanford student chooses one of these career pathways.

One answer you are less likely to hear is that of “teacher,” a profession that popular opinion does not quite equate with the others mentioned above. Unfortunately, the status afforded to elementary, middle and high school teachers is not very high, both on the Stanford campus as well as around the country. A recent University news article explores the differences between the Finnish school system and U.S. education, noting that teachers in Finland are compared to lawyers and doctors while teachers in the U.S. are perceived to be more on par with “nurses and therapists,” according to Finnish education expert Pasi Sahlberg.

Other authors have also addressed the diminished prestige of teachers. Pulitzer prize-winning New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof remarked in a March 2011 piece that, “We should be elevating teachers, not throwing darts at them.” At a time when the U.S. educational system is losing its competitive edge against the schools of other countries, it is lamentable that the choice to enter the teaching profession is not always highly regarded by students graduating from elite colleges.

By “the teaching profession,” we do not mean temporary stints in education, such as those provided by Teach For America (TFA). Skeptics of the program remind us that participation in TFA does not indicate that students seek to be teachers; indeed, last year this Editorial Board highlighted the appeal of TFA as an organization that “has turned education reform into a status symbol” (“Teach for America’s Rise Reveals Need for Options,” March 9, 2011). Some students certainly use TFA as a springboard to either professional schools or different career paths, but one should not generalize the motives of those well-intentioned students admitted to the TFA corps. A study published in October 2011 on Education Week finds that 60.5 percent of TFA teachers continue as public school teachers beyond their two-year commitment. Whether this means that TFA members take up a long-term career in teaching or merely one additional year past their two-year TFA contract is unclear, but it suggests that they are not necessarily ending their tenure as teachers with their completion of TFA.

Still, the popularity of temporary teaching fellowships does not address the root problem of low teacher status in U.S. society. Several means of addressing teaching’s lack of prestige have been proffered. Kristof’s suggested solution, based upon findings of a McKinsey study, calls for an increase in teacher salaries. Sahlberg, referring to teaching qualifications in Finland, points out that candidates must complete a three-year master’s degree before teaching. He notes that teachers in Finland are highly coveted, and primary school teaching positions are harder to obtain than entrance to medical school.

All of these possibilities — more selective admission to teaching positions, more stringent educational requirements for teachers and higher teacher salaries — are essentially methods of elevating status. And for better or worse, this may be the most effective way to make the job more appealing to graduates of elite colleges such as Stanford. But if we want results that will not take their toll upon the current educational system, we cannot suddenly restrict admission to master’s programs in education or increase the number of years in the program. The current nationwide shortage of qualified teachers renders these options incredibly damaging in the short-term. Nor can schools simply offer higher salaries without cutting costs elsewhere.

More important is a shift in mindset, a shift that will hammer home the point to Stanford students that teaching is as noble a profession as any other and certainly one that is crucial at this point in time. Reminders from professors to consider teaching as a career; events to showcase the importance of teachers in society — these are just some possibilities. Those students pursuing degrees at such programs as STEP, offered by the Stanford School of Education, should be no less proud than their peers of their interest in a teaching career. And for those students who would raise a questioning eyebrow at a peer who aspires to be a high school teacher — this is the attitude holding back the US educational system. The change must begin now, and it certainly must begin at the level of elite institutions such as Stanford.

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4 thoughts on “Editorial: Restoring the Prestige of Teaching

  1. Jim Wheeler

    Disclaimer: I am an outsider to the teaching profession, although when I was in the U.S. Navy I did teach a class in navigation that was fully accredited by the U. of Kansas school of engineering.

    A good article and good points. However, I see three needed things unsaid here.

    1. It is a chicken & egg problem, is it not? Better salaries are needed to attract better talent, but lesser talent is not deserving of better salaries. Said another way, how shall the education establishment weed out the less productive when tenure and union rules block the way?

    2. A second major problem I see unaddressed here is the American proclivity to politicize the teaching process, such as NCLB and government meddling with textbook and class content.

    3. I believe one major root cause of elementary school failure and high dropout rates to be the cultural belief in a lock-step curriculum. This discourages slow students and bores the bright ones. Somehow this has to be addressed.

    Until these bedrock problems are solved I don’t see the situation getting any better. Nevertheless I appreciate that you and others, Jennifer, keep trying.

    I have urged my son to send our grandkids to a private school, but he balks at the cost.

    Reply
    1. Jennifer Lockett Post author

      I can make a comment on a few points

      #1 – very few states now have teachers unions and what’s interesting is that those with unions tend to perform far better than those that do not have them. I don’t think that unions are the big bar that people think it is – I think it’s an easy scapegoat. In my history, I have known very few truly “bad” teachers – and they tend to lose their jobs or leave the profession early.

      #2 Totally agree with that, I hate textbook curriculum – I’ve actually been toying with the idea of going textbook free and instead using a type of ‘reader’ – a collection of summaries, articles, primary sources, etc. However, being a non-public school teacher enables that.

      #3 You and I are in total agreement here and I see No Child Left Behind is the great evil – as it has put such an emphasis and importance on standardized test and getting everyone to the ‘bare minimum.’ This is why funds at schools have been redirected away from gifted or advanced programs and administrator teaching is so prevalent.

      Private school is pricy and can be worth it. However, another option, if your son or his children’s mother have the time and energy (and most people working 60 hours a week do not) can sit down and work with those kids every day, then they can get just as much out of public as they do private. I went to public schools my whole life (some of them were downright terrible – designated inner-city schools). Because of my parents and my own initiative, I was successful – but a lot of that was luck (born into a family with parents who cared about education and having a natural proclivity for learning). May others don’t have those opportunities and advantages.

      Reply
  2. Robert Connolly

    This is a great piece. Thanks so much for posting the blog.

    The author notes the need to hammer home to Stanford students the importance of teaching. One of the ways of doing that would be for higher education institutions to also prioritize the role of “teaching” among their faculty. When it comes time for tenure and promotion, teaching is given considerably less weight than publishing, research, and grant dollars. Whereas one will be denied tenure or promotion without the requisite number and type of publications, mediocre or average teaching will suffice. A bunch of years ago I was a graduate assistant for a now reasonably well-known scholar who lamented to me once that he “hated” having to prepare lectures, being in the classroom, grading papers and so forth – that he would much rather be doing his research. I wondered at the time, then why did you apply for a professor’s job at a university?

    Making this shift is a great challenge for the university system today. Also coming out of Stanford is the Tomorrow’s Professor listserv that has a bunch of good things to think about at:

    http://cgi.stanford.edu/~dept-ctl/cgi-bin/tomprof/postings.php

    Reply

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