Education Opinion

The Power Elite

By Nancy Flanagan — August 25, 2010 3 min read
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I once had lunch with a candidate for National Board Certification who hadn’t achieved certification in his first attempt. We went over his scores and a rough draft of his second attempt to get the score he needed to certify. Most of my suggestions centered on providing considerably more concrete, credible evidence about what his students were learning from his (very creative) lessons. At one point, he scrubbed his face with his hands and said “How can this be so difficult? I graduated from Harvard! I just keep asking myself how all those other teachers got through this.”

My answer: they spent a lot of time poring over the standards, took advice from skilled teachers who had success with the process, and didn’t assume it would be a cakewalk. They approached the work with humility.

It strikes me that a lot of the angst in education policy-making these days comes from the implications of “credential entitlement:" teachers don’t often have degrees from select colleges, so teachers can’t be expected to shape policy or theory to produce high-quality outcomes.

Decades ago, Dan Lortie pointed out in his classic “Schoolteacher” that many public school educators were the first in their families to earn a college degree, and sometimes brought their low-middle class values with them into what he called a truncated profession. Becoming a teacher has faded in prestige since then; being a teacher is no longer a distinction in America, although other nations put much higher value on the selection and training of their teaching force.

Here’s the thinking: If garden-variety teachers are intellectual dim bulbs, doesn’t it makes sense to have smarter people making policy outlining their working conditions and indicators of success? Even Sarah Palin, daughter of educators, evidently thinks teachers’ policy ideas are laughable.

I got my bachelors degree at No-Name Regional University (the only school that gave me significant scholarship help, something a first-generation college attendee values over all other qualities). It wasn’t until I was admitted into one of the nation’s top Ed Policy schools for doctoral work that I started to sense the omnipresent jostling for status. At orientation, we were reminded how “select” we were--a novelty for me, but not, evidently, for other students in my cohort, fresh off internships in public policy and graduate degrees from Universities Everyone Knows.

Graduate school was the first time I observed students and professors judging research, journal articles and reports by author and university, without actually reading them. There were unwritten rules about whose scholarship and policy savvy were trustworthy. The doctoral cohort was not an easy place to be a veteran K-12 teacher--in fact, one of my grad-student colleagues remarked that he was amazed any sentient person could be a teacher for 30 years. Another student in my department told me that her (small, celebrated) undergraduate college was “not the kind of college that had an education department.”

What kinds of colleges do have undergraduate education programs? Not our kind, dear. This is certainly what lies under veteran teachers’ resentment of Teach for America. It’s not about ed schools’ stubborn intransigence in keeping weak-but-cheap programs alive, or school districts’ refusal to acknowledge they desperately need an infusion bright, committed young teachers-- now. It’s the repugnant idea that no “sentient” person with a degree from a prestigious college would prepare for or commit to a career in teaching.

Distinction is how we order and make sense of our world. If our most esteemed universities devalue education as a discipline or process--isn’t that somewhere between irony and foolishness?

In his regular TIME column--entitled “The Awesome Column"--Joel Stein wrote:

I went to a better college than you did. That does not make me a better person than you. It does, however, make me smarter, more knowledgeable, more curious and more ambitious. So, in a lot of ways, better.

Stein argues satirically (I hope) that some positions--Supreme Court Justice, brain surgeon, technical-support phone operator--demand elitist credentials. We should be happy that virtually the entire Supreme Court got law degrees at Harvard and Yale, he says. Maybe so.

Do elitist credentials improve the odds that teachers will be more effective? If so, there must be more to accomplished teaching than most people think.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.