Overcoming the acceptance of mediocrity in teacher recruitment and retention represents the greatest opportunity to bring major improvement to our schools.
Some teachers are better than others. This is a simple and, I hope, obvious fact. But the culture of American schools is not friendly to it. Particularly in our hiring of public school teachers, we tend to avoid notions of serious discernment, of picking the very best in our society to become our teachers, and we accept that the most talented of our young people will gravitate to other fields. Overcoming this acceptance of mediocrity in teacher recruitment and retention represents the greatest opportunity to bring a quantum improvement to our schools.
To focus on the elite among new teaching recruits as a matter of method is, in fact, the radically democratic way to give our society’s most valuable resources to our poorest and neediest children. That simple fact should trump any concerns about the ill effects of meritocracy on job applicants. The work of educators is to educate young people. So long as we have the courage to make the very best possible experience for those young people our highest goal, we must attend to fairness for teachers only after we have attended to excellence for our students. And we have yet to do that right. Today, the best teachers in many schools are in a way the dissidents, the people who stand out, who attract criticism as well as praise for being remarkable educators, and they resist a strong pull toward mediocrity in the professional culture of too many schools.
We must recognize that this is a problem, and we must fix it. The solution is not difficult to imagine. New teachers must come to know that there is an early-career, merit-based threshold to cross, similar to what doctors, lawyers, and many business professionals face in their first few years of professional work. If we can make this a reality, the most talented and most effective among them will be able to earn their place in a truly elite, dedicated corps of teachers. We will keep the very best of the new teacher recruits, and we’ll attract large numbers of people in other professions who today don’t sign on to become teachers because they believe that American schools haven’t fostered a culture of achievement and haven’t been able to make the profession of teacher as respected or respectable as many other professions.
In many school systems today, new teachers are, officially, on some kind of probation for a period, often three years. But these probationary periods in fact don’t relate to job performance. So long as performance is not outright criminal or grossly harmful to children, new teachers in these districts will keep their jobs. The money in school budgets is the key to launching or limiting their careers. In a budget cutback, the probationary teachers are the ones whose ranks are trimmed, because they are generally not fully covered by unions, and are therefore easier to let go. So long as we do not screen new teachers based on excellence—not based on mere competence, not based on basic skill levels, but based on demonstration that each individual is better at teaching than most who try—we will never be able to create and reinforce the kind of elite professional culture among our teachers that they deserve, and, more importantly, that our students deserve.
Consider the college student planning to become a teacher. And consider not just any student, but the kind of student we most want to be teaching our children—someone who is bright, warm, disciplined, and interested in the ideas of other people, someone curious about the world, and capable of doing difficult things well.
At the age of 21 or so, he is finishing college, heading toward a degree in English, biology, history, or another subject. Most likely, he is not taking a degree in education (the students with the strongest academic backgrounds generally don’t).
In his senior year, he is probably working as a student-teacher for at least part of the year, going off in the mornings to a school where the students call him “Mister.” He takes a coffee break in the teachers’ lounge now and then, a junior colleague of teachers young and old. His friends who are not planning on becoming teachers are studying, heading off for the occasional job interview, and spending a great deal of time as college students do—enjoying independence, hanging out, reading interesting books, thinking about the future. In this local culture, the student-teacher is a standout. He’s in the real world, seen by many as a full adult citizen, clearly bearing serious responsibility for the many students he deals with on a regular basis. This is a person with prestige in his community of college friends. He is a person who can easily feel good about his choice to be a teacher.
So long as we don't screen new teachers, we we will never be able to create the kind of elite professional culture among our teachers that they and our students deserve.
Roll forward a year, now. Our young teacher is getting his sea legs before his own class—teaching on his own, with a mentor teacher checking in now and then perhaps, and a little extra support from the principal if the principal has the time and interest. He’s solving problems, developing relationships with students, and working through one of the most difficult and rewarding phases in a teacher’s life. He’s also making an adult salary, though not a particularly large one. He’s probably taking courses toward a master’s degree in education or a related subject in the evenings.
His friends are doing a range of things—taking time off to travel, working in jobs that might be the beginnings of their own careers or might help them learn what they don’t want to do for a living, or perhaps they’re beginning graduate or professional schools. Remember, we’re talking about the social circle of the kind of young teacher who should be prized—the talented, ambitious young person. His friends are probably a lot like him—they’re people with plenty of options who are looking for the right paths to exercise their own talents and build meaningful lives. Some are likely to be starting law school or work on an M.B.A.; some are taking entry-level business jobs; some are moving back home to their parents’ to decompress from four years of college, save some money, and consider their choices.
Their friend the teacher is probably making as much or more money than most. He’s probably taking on greater personal challenges in his day-to-day work, and he’s working in the public sector, making a difference in the education arena that so many commentators spill so much ink over in the newspapers and magazines. He’s no underachiever. He looks to the world like a person with a vital and important professional life.
Now look forward another three or four years. The teacher’s friends are less likely to be business or law students, and more likely to be business people and lawyers. Those who took the academic route might well be considering the beginnings of their Ph.D. dissertations. Even those who took the lowest-level business jobs are now likely to be reaching modestly higher rungs on the career ladder.
Certainly some of his friends might still be traveling, or still be living at home, working jobs that aren’t panning out and thinking about the right changes to make. But on the whole, our young teacher, who has by now gotten the hang of how to be a classroom educator and has the skills to walk into class with confidence and break into a lesson without too much nervous perspiration, is one of the lower earners in his cohort, and probably feels a good deal less like the leader of the pack.
“What do you guys do?” someone might ask a table full of them at the local pub. “Well, I’m a med student, 4th year.” “I’m a lawyer over at Huddle & Pass.” “I’m an editor at a national magazine.” And our teacher says, “I teach 3rd grade,” or “I teach high school biology.” No need to feel ashamed, of course. But there’s not a lot of prestige for him to grab hold of as he tells his professional story. At the age of 25 or so, that might not be a big deal; time will change that.
People benefit so much from being part of a known elite that they'll put off the chance to make more money elsewhere.
Roll forward another 15 years. Our teacher is now 40. His friends are now law partners, business people, doctors, writers, scientists, and professors. Where is he in his career? He could be at the head of a 3rd grade classroom, teaching the children of some of his first students from student-teacher days. He’s probably picked up a doctorate along the way, as 20 years of steady night courses have yielded their benefits. And he might well be the happiest of all his friends.
As they face their own moments of reflection—What kind of contribution am I making? What personal satisfaction am I really getting from my work? What kind of community do I have at work, day to day?—the teacher’s answers could be very satisfying. I’m changing lives every day, shaping the minds and souls of my students, he might say. I see the results of my work every day when I look at my students, bump into kids I taught years ago, learn to do my job better every year. And I work in a hive of activity, energized by the youth of the students and the profound purpose of the institutional home we share.
Or maybe he decided to give up teaching. He might have decided at the age of 30 or so that he wanted his children to have the economic advantages he could garner for them through business or law, professions that draw on similar skills and aptitudes. In the business world, he could probably triple his salary, though he’d have to trade off the nobility of the educator (and summers off). Or he might have decided that he really wanted the greater freedoms of the professor.
But the most likely ending to this story—not a sad ending by any means—is the compromise position of the educational administrator. With his above-average skills and real dedication to the mission of schools, he is now probably a principal, a district curriculum director, or an associate superintendent. What do you do for a living? I’m a lawyer. I’m a VP at Giant Corp. I’m a high school principal. Or, I’m the head of a school system. That sounds pretty good—and the money isn’t shabby for those jobs in most cases either.
Interestingly, many business people know that as an organization’s standards go beyond merely “above average"—as it earns, in other words, the reputation of being an elite institution, where only the most talented people work together—the cost of employment begins to fall. People benefit so from being part of a known elite that they’ll put off the chance to make more money in order to get other kinds of compensation—knowledge, pride, and the intangible value of having a notable, elite affiliation.
Many elite institutions across American public life are driven by this dynamic. Why else do the most talented lawyers often work for the government at a fraction of what they can earn elsewhere? Why are our universities filled with so many of the best and brightest of our professionals, there to study and teach, making so much less than they could elsewhere? Why else do young doctors (and many not so young) spend years beyond medical school earning small salaries as they train for greater and greater specialization?
Let us create the expectation that most who begin their careers as teachers won't make the grade, and those who do will be truly the best and the brightest of every generation.
And why should our K-12 schools not be in the same category? Once we come to believe that they can be, and that we know how to make it so, how can we possibly choose any alternative course?
Perhaps out of fairness, one might say. We want our teacher corps to be a humane institution—not to be driven by the competitive fires that ignite even the judicial law clerks and top-drawer graduate students and university lecturers. It’s true, we could be fairer to teachers, to make the profession a little less competitive, a little less demanding. In fact, that’s precisely the situation we’re in now, and we have discovered that by being fairer to the teachers—particularly to the less talented and less ambitious teachers—we make our students bear the cost, essentially taking from our students to give to our least talented teachers.
And of course it is the poor students, whose parents cannot opt out of the schools they are in (because they don’t have the money for private schools, or the skills at working the educational bureaucracy necessary to find their way to the top of the heap in public school systems) who pay the highest price.
In an era of real reform in American education—and our era certainly qualifies—it is high time that we begin to change this fact. A tougher apprenticeship period for new teachers is the place to begin. Let us create the expectation that most who begin their careers as teachers won’t make the grade, and those who do will be truly the best and the brightest of every generation, while those who enter the profession and leave in those early years will be proud to say—and will benefit from saying—"I was a teacher.”
Peter Temes is the president of the Great Books Foundation in Chicago.
A version of this article appeared in the December 05, 2001 edition of Education Week as Can Teaching Become an Elite Profession?