How the Bad Economy Could Produce Better Teachers

Why We Need Merit-Based Teacher Scholarships

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Every fall, I stand at the education department booth at the academic fair for incoming students at Wellesley College and watch long lines form in front of the economics department’s booth beside me.

If there’s a silver lining to the cloud that has settled over Wall Street, it may be this: Some of those economics majors I saw in September, the ones who were thinking about becoming investment bankers, might be reconsidering. Students are hearing about alums—associates and vice presidents at places like Lehman Brothers who have put in years of long hours and working weekends—who may be losing their jobs (not to mention their chances of becoming managing directors).

But many college students think teaching is a low-status job, and for many at elite colleges and universities, it often is. Part of the remarkable growth of Teach For America, for example, has occurred because such students view it more as social-justice work than teaching, and know that it’s very selective. My Wellesley students buy in to Teach For America’s marketing message that it’s about getting “the best and the brightest” into teaching.

—Illustration by Vanessa Solis

In some ways, they’re right. Teach For America probably does attract students with higher SAT scores and GPAs than those of recruits to most teacher education programs. Research shows that undergraduate teacher education majors tend to have lower SAT scores than students in almost all other majors. And like those who major in their programs, some teacher education professors have lower academic qualifications than professors in most other departments. (See Donna Foote’s Relentless Pursuit on Teach For America and, on some of the problems with teacher education, David F. Labaree’s The Trouble With Ed Schools and Arthur E. Levine’s Educating School Teachers.) There may be a solution, however: Getting more top students into teacher education programs may help raise the status of teaching and of teacher-educators, and thus help raise the quality of teacher education.

We know we have a teacher-quality crisis in American education. Research by scholars such as Ronald F. Ferguson, Linda Darling-Hammond, Richard M. Ingersoll, William L. Sanders, Kati Haycock, and others shows that teacher quality is the most important variable in student achievement that schools can affect. When learning is not taking place in schools, it is not, of course, all the fault of the teachers. We have millions of terrific teachers, and we also know that families, income levels, and other factors matter in the achievement equation. But the bottom line is that, when the chance for learning is lost, the ramifications are potentially more lasting and harmful than what’s happening now on Wall Street.

Look, for example, at areas critical to the country’s global economic competitiveness. Our students’ low rankings on such assessments as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS, are discouraging (though many students in top American high schools are doing well). Look, too, at who is doing science research in American universities. Increasingly, it’s not the students who were taught by teachers in K-12 schools here.

One of my former students, who won a merit-based Knowles Science Teaching Foundation Fellowship, told me she is the only student-teacher in chemistry or physics in her class at a large nearby graduate school of education. There are other fellowships and new federal TEACH Grants for undergraduates and graduates in high-need fields, but these aren’t enough.

We need to attract good teachers sooner, in high school or their first years of college, and in all subjects, at all levels, to help the next generation acquire the knowledge and skills they’ll need to deal with the messes our generation has made.

But back to those economics majors: Some of you will say that not all of them would make good teachers. I agree. But the fact remains that we especially need better teachers in math and science, and economics majors usually have strong quantitative skills.

Quantitative skills and high SATs don’t necessarily translate to good teaching, you’ll say. I agree, but as Richard J. Murnane, Judith D. Singer, and John B. Willett document in Who Will Teach?, SAT scores are one of the most robust predictors of whether teachers can produce academic gains, not the only measure of good teaching, but an important one.

Don’t get me wrong. Attracting more teachers with high SATs isn’t enough—it’s what teachers do inside the classroom that really matters. But getting teachers with stronger content knowledge and analytical skills is really important.

Why push top students into traditional undergraduate teacher education programs? Aren’t apprenticeship programs, such as the Boston Teacher Residency, a good strategy for making it easier for highly qualified applicants to get into teaching? Perhaps, but teaching and at the same time learning how to be a teacher is grueling work. The only course I ever dropped was the night course I took for teacher certification. I tell my students that my first year of teaching in the Boston public schools was the hardest thing I have ever done, harder than Harvard, and I wished I’d done some student-teaching first.

Doesn’t graduate-level teacher education provide better preparation? Maybe so, but lots of my students say they can’t take another year of school right now, can’t afford high tuitions, don’t want more student loans, and need to support themselves after they graduate.

What, then, can we do to grab some of these econ majors—and other top students in other majors—now, before they head off to other careers?

I propose that colleges and universities offer merit-based teacher scholarships to undergraduates, similar to merit-based scholarships awarded to athletes. For colleges and universities that already give merit-based scholarships, this shouldn’t pose a policy problem, though teacher scholarships may not be as easy a sell as athletic scholarships to institutions that garner large television revenues and alumni loyalty from sports events. There are no teacher bowls.

Many elite colleges and universities, however, oppose merit-based scholarships in favor of need-blind admissions and financial support for students who meet their selection criteria. In these cases, students could be given merit-based incentives once they’ve enrolled. After exploring courses and majors, sophomores could be offered teacher-incentive grants to cover some or all tuition, replace work study and loans with grant aid, and provide special stipends during student-teaching. Such a policy would expand incentives for as many talented students as possible to go into teaching, including those not on financial aid or with federal TEACH Grants.

How could we push colleges and universities to give teacher scholarships a try? You’ve heard the rumblings about requiring wealthy schools to spend more of their endowments. Offering teacher scholarships might help academia head off possible new government regulations, and would respond to complaints about stratospheric tuitions and ballooning endowments (albeit not so ballooning after the Wall Street meltdown). Parents and alumni might be a bit happier if they knew some of their money was helping get better teachers for their younger children and grandchildren. Donors might be interested in endowing teacher scholarships at their alma maters, perhaps in honor or memory of a favorite teacher or professor.

Lots of details would need to be worked out about how to select the best applicants, those who would perform well and stay in the profession. We’d need recruiters, and transcripts, essays, interviews, sample teaching sessions, and other measures to assess motivation and commitment. We’d want to encourage diversity and find students who would be passionate about getting all of their future students to learn. Alums who are retired teachers could be enlisted as scouts and to serve on teacher-scholarship committees.

Recipients of these scholarships would need to maintain high grade point averages and promise to teach for a minimum number of years, with incentives for staying in the classroom longer and for teaching in hard-to-staff subjects and underserved schools. We would need to think about how to reasonably proceed if students with these scholarships didn’t go into teaching. But if scholarships and incentive grants replaced loans, college financial-aid offices would have more discretion.

Let’s take advantage of this window of opportunity and give merit-based teacher scholarships a try. It would be nice at the academic fair next fall to have long lines at the education department’s booth.

Vol. 28, Issue 12, Page 40

Published in Print: November 12, 2008, as How the Bad Economy Could Produce Better Teachers
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