I recently came across a report published in JPAM, the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. It’s extremely thought-provoking, and it remains relevant even though it’s been a long time (in research years) since its initial publication. The report is called Women, the Labor Market, and the Declining Relative Quality of Teachers, and it seeks to analyze and explain trends in teacher quality over time. Frankly, the article constructs a pretty bleak narrative about the future of the teaching profession.
This article argues that women, the historical lifeblood of the teaching profession, are being pulled away from teaching toward higher-paying jobs. This is especially true for women with high standardized test scores, who seem to become the most high-quality teachers. In effect, the authors conclude, teachers are getting worse, and it’s happening because people who would otherwise be good teachers just simply don’t want to do the job.
Now, while I have a few qualms about the authors’ research methods and the way that they draw their conclusions, I’m going to leave my objections to the side, because I think that their overall conclusion matches my own personal experience very well. The most talented people are expected to go to law school, business school, or medical school, and close behind them are people who become academics and those who pursue graduate degrees in engineering and the physical and social sciences. Teachers are rarely exalted. Too few parents dream of their children becoming teachers. What can we do to change this?
First, I really do believe we need to start with paying teachers more. If there’s a brain drain, we need to plug it. Maybe we won’t be able to attract very many high-flyers to teaching immediately, but we’d at least stop high-quality teachers from continuing to flee the profession.
Second, we need to consider why, besides just salary, teaching is so unattractive for young people. Perhaps the reputation that schools have earned for being bureaucratic, Kafkaesque nightmares of workplaces is not unfounded. Today’s cohort of young people graduating college is among the most hard-headed and individualistic in history. Would it be so objectionable to allow the talent of this generation to try and redesign schooling in a way that they’d like to teach?
Third, colleges and universities need to fund undergraduate programs specifically for teachers. At my own university, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the undergraduate education degree was recently eliminated. If students can train to be teachers as undergraduates, they will no doubt be more enthusiastic about entering the teaching profession.
Fourth, alternative routes to certification, like Teach For America and the New York City Teaching Fellows, should be given more support from the establishment. Many teachers malign alternative certification as a way for people who are uninterested in making a career out of teaching to add to their resumes at the expense of students. Hostility toward people who show an interest in becoming teachers is the last thing the teaching profession needs when young people are already dissuaded from becoming teachers.
These solutions may require some institutional muscle, but they ought to be uncontroversial. We know what attracts young people to certain professions, and we know what teaching is lacking when compared to these more popular jobs. In order for schools to thrive, we need talented young people showing an interest in becoming educators. Let’s make it as appealing as possible for them to do so.