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Education Commentary

Steering Students to the ‘Invisible Career’

By Faith Dunne — March 07, 1984 7 min read

The young woman in my office quivered with indignation. “I’m not exactly planning to embark on a life of crime!” she said. “I just want to make my own career choices, and nobody wants me to--not Bill, not my parents, not my honors adviser. I think they’d prefer it if I set up as a call girl. At least I’d make some money that way!”

What crime against convention did this Dartmouth College senior want to commit? Did she want to join the Marines, become a go-go dancer? Nothing so exotic, but something much crazier in the eyes of those who counseled her. This bright, personable 21-year-old, an English honors major with a 3.8 average at a highly competitive liberal-arts college, wanted (lowered voices, please) to teach.

You think I’m kidding. I’m not. And I have been through this kind of experience many times during my 10 years here’. I have responded to anguished telephone calls from parents, begging me not to let their brilliant sons “waste” their education on a teaching career. I have worked through endless budget conferences with young men and women agonizing over whether they can possibly afford to teach when they have tens of thousands of dollars in college loans to repay. I have juggled complex schedules for students stymied by the effort of fitting eight education courses into the maze of distributive and major requirements demanded by an institution dedicated to the liberal arts.

Does it make any difference whether or not these young people teach? Numerically, the answer is a resounding “no.” Dartmouth certifies perhaps 20 teachers each year. Of these, several go to law school anyway, or teach in private schools, or leave for greener pastures after a year or two in the classroom. Thus, our contribution to the improvement of the condition of public-school teaching ranks right up there with that of the average convent. In a symbolic sense, however, these sagas of family pressures and student fears say a great deal about the distribution of talent in contemporary America, and about the likely impact of that talent distribution on the future quality of classroom teaching.

The problem begins with the structure of higher education in the United States. Like it or not, there is a hierarchy of postsecondary institutions, with selective liberal-arts colleges at the top and the teacher-training institutions very near the bottom. The arrangement of this hierarchy has been shaped by our social traditions. Liberal-arts colleges were constructed to teach gentlemen the cultural and intellectual precepts they were intended to conserve. Normal schools were invented to prepare women for low-paying, low-prestige jobs as elementary-level teachers. As these institutions evolved, the sharpness of those distinctions faded, but the modern liberal-arts college has inherited an aura of money, power, and prestige, while the modern “state teachers college” has a legacy of self-sacrificing poverty and second-class status.

Clearly, the result of these traditional distinctions is unequal distribution of academic talent among the different types of institutions. Not unreasonably, students tend to apply to the most selective colleges within their academic reach, and to attend the most prestigious school they can afford. With the exception of a handful of outstanding technical institutes (the California Institute of Technology, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the like), these will almost certainly be liberal-arts colleges or liberal-arts divisions of major universities. By and large, it will be those who didn’t “make the grade” academically who will find themselves in the colleges that specialize in teacher training.

As the college-applicant pool gets smaller (as it does with each passing year), a higher proportion of the academically superior students are admitted to the selective liberal-arts colleges. As the literacy level of the applicant pool declines (as it does with each passing year), the standard for what constitutes “academically superior” declines with it. Thus, even very selective schools like Dartmouth have learned to live with mean Scholastic Aptitude Test scores of about 1280, (down from 1330 15 years ago). The teacher-training colleges have had to learn to live with scores that average about 807--40 points below the national mean.

Theoretically, there is nothing to stop the academically superior student from going to a liberal-arts college and then going on to get teacher certification at the graduate level. In reality, however, two problems arise. First, only the very noble or the very wealthy are likely to choose to add an extra year’s tuition and absence from the job market to a $50,000 bill for higher education, especially when the additional training leads only to a job that pays the beginner less than $13,000 per year. Perhaps more important (since these colleges do contain a reasonable number of the rich and/or self-sacrificing), the culture of the liberal-arts college discourages students from even thinking about teaching as a career.

Secondary-school teaching is simply not one of the occupations encouraged in most liberal-arts colleges. Students who are in the process of making occupational decisions have a variety of sources of information and counseling. Professors guide some students toward academic careers. Preprofessional counselors and programs shower students with more information than they need about law, medicine, and business. Other occupations--the clergy, psychological counseling, college administration--are part of campus life, providing models for the students making job choices. In most liberal-arts colleges, however, there are no programs, no models, no counseling for those interested in public-school teaching. In the world of most liberal-arts students, elementary or secondary teaching is an invisible career.

Worse, the liberal-arts college community often actively derides the field of precollege teaching. There are many reasons for this, but the primary cause of the sometimes virulent rejection of precollege education and educators seems to come from a fundamental dilemma in contemporary liberal- arts education. Liberal-arts colleges have always defined themselves as being nonvocational. Their special niche in the educational system has been “pure scholarship,” the advancement of knowledge, and the transmission of culture for its own sake. As the pressures of the marketplace have pushed liberal-arts colleges toward increasingly specific preparation for overtly vocational programs (that is, professional schools), their sense of identity has become less clear and less comfortable. “Drawing the line” at teacher preparation has been an inexpensive and comforting device for colleges trying to maintain their sense of scholarly integrity while channeling students into courses designed to get them into graduate schools.

The intricacies of liberal-arts colleges’ self-justification process should be moderately irrelevant to those concerned with the quality of public-school teaching in the United States. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Verbal and mathematical skills are the basic tools of a teacher’s trade. As long as the most academically competent freshmen continue to choose colleges that provide actual disincentives to teaching, there is no way that these skills will be represented adequately in the nation’s classrooms. The downward spiral in teachers’ skills will continue for reasons embedded in the structure of our higher-education system.

The leaders in the current outcry for better teachers generally ignore this structural basis of declining quality. They talk about “raising standards” for hiring teachers and “getting rid of Mickey-Mouse courses” in teacher-certification programs. But if the distribution of the talent pool continues in its present manner, none of those reforms will have the slightest impact on the overall quality of classroom teaching. If the level of academic skills in the nation’s classrooms is to be improved, it will have to be the result of a reorientation of liberal-arts colleges.

Those of us who work in selective liberal-arts colleges must convince our colleagues to encourage their students to become elementary and secondary teachers--on the grounds of the national education crisis or enlightened self-interest, whichever seems most likely to work. Those of us who establish certification requirements need to make sure that “raised standards” do not eliminate the minimal education programs that are the best most liberal-arts colleges can provide. Those who legislate scholarship funds need to pay special attention to young people who must balance a desire to teach against the pressure to pay off monumental loans. With this kind of concerted effort, we may be able to change the quality of classroom teaching. Without it, we will have to resign ourselves to a continuation of the decline in literacy and in numbers of qualified teaching candidates that has characterized American education for the last 20 years.

A version of this article appeared in the March 07, 1984 edition of Education Week as Steering Students to the ‘Invisible Career’