For all the New York City students working to meet rigorous new academic standards, nothing is more important than having a good teacher. Teaching is a tough job, requiring a high level of talent, drive, knowledge and skill. But a new study of graduating college seniors found that students who major in education – the future teachers of America – have lower levels of literacy than all other students studied.
Released by the well-respected American Institutes for Research, the report measured college students’ ability to interpret real-world documents and texts like newspaper stories and editorials. It also measured practical math skills such as comparing the cost per ounce of food items. Science and engineering majors had the highest scores, not just in math but also in language. Education major scores were lowest overall.
This pattern repeats itself when education majors are compared to others using SAT scores and other common measures of math and verbal ability. And while it’s true that a substantial number of new teachers don’t major in education, the same disparities emerge when recent college graduates who enter the classroom are compared to those who don’t. It is abundantly clear that we’re not recruiting the best and the brightest into our public schools.
The problem is partly generational. Fifty years ago, schools had a captive labor market because women were confined to a few professions like nursing and teaching. Now, thankfully, women can be doctors, lawyers and CEOs, too. But that means schools have to compete much harder for talent, something few are equipped to do.
It’s also a function of the signals we send to young people. Admission standards at education schools and for the profession itself are not very demanding. That leads to what economists call "adverse selection" – making the profession less attractive to superambitious people and more attractive to candidates who might not be able to succeed elsewhere.
On top of that, many teachers grapple on a daily basis with issues of safety, facilities and work environment that would be unthinkable in other professions. Overall teacher pay is lower than in other professions demanding high levels of intelligence and education. This is particularly true for the most talented teachers, since the rigid salary schedules used in most school districts (New York included) guarantee that the best teachers get paid almost exactly the same as the worst.
How can we do better?
Part of the answer lies in working outside normal channels. Organizations like Teach for America recruit top students from elite colleges to teach in high-poverty schools. The New Teacher Project has placed thousands of midcareer professionals in New York City schools. We need as many of these education entrepreneurs as we can get, particularly since poor students tend to be taught by the least qualified teachers.
But in the long run we must change the nature of the teaching profession itself. That means raising standards, paying for performance and letting people from all walks of life become teachers. It means holding teachers accountable for how much their students learn, and giving them the respect, recognition and compensation that responsibility entails. Only then will teaching be what it should be – a favored destination for the brightest minds.