This is not a researched submission. I’m only reacting to the recent flood of hysterical proselytizing by “experts” over America’s imminent collapse because of the crisis in education. It seems that half of the coverage predicts total third-world status for us because we’ll never catch up to those Asian superkids who outperform us at every turn. But the other half is for the optimists who see the tide turning now. That group believes that a new system of “accountability” will weed out the dead weights from the teaching profession, and America’s kids will regain the number one spot.
I know that Tom Friedman, and others, believes we already have the magic formula; now just do it! Just reward those superior teachers, and let more smart, ambitious kids into the profession. Let them be compensated on the basis of improved test scores and graduation rates!
Off the top of my head, I see two problems with this plan. The first has to do with how women now view the teaching profession. I base this on memories of Mrs. Singer, my teacher for the fourth, fifth and sixth grades. That’s right: fourth, fifth and sixth! For three straight years, this woman had the greatest influence on my intellectual development. Was she a good teacher? Of course she was, but more importantly, she would never choose teaching as a career today. Not only because opportunities for women in general are better; it’s that the opportunities for women of her intelligence, dedication and, above all, discipline have greatly expanded. Mrs. Singer would not be an ordinary middle-manager today. She would reach for the top, and private industry would grab her up.
Mrs. Singer entered the teaching profession after World War II. That’s when women lost the advances made during the war, and the returning soldiers reclaimed leadership roles in the economy and the government. Teaching was not a field that promised that kind of prestige or financial rewards for men, and it doesn’t offer them today either. Men went back into private industry, and women, even the smartest and most ambitious, put their energies into teaching. But today, the smartest women have little incentive to limit their careers the way teaching does. As a result, the women who go into teaching today are not of the quality of Mrs. Singer.
The second reason has to do with the nature of teaching as a career. Private industry, especially finance, will take the top people because it offers the kind of rewards that it can afford. Sure, it’s competitive as hell, and has no security whatsoever, but the sky’s the limit if you have the hunger. It demands your best, and those who want to compete with the best get a thrill out of testing themselves every day. When they fail, the cushion is that they know they can get that buzz again when they start over.
Teaching will never offer that thrill, or those rewards, so don’t even talk about it.
But what about the other professions, like law and medicine? Can we get young people of that quality into teaching instead? Not likely! Unlike law and medicine, teaching jobs are primarily in the public sector. Doctors and lawyers may have to endure the mind-numbing drudgery of their jobs, but the payoffs as privately employed professionals can be spectacular. Not so with teaching. The drudgery is only relieved when they get a “cushy” administrative job –these are mostly useless, except as a way to keep them in the classroom by dangling the prize — only given to a few — of collecting a paycheck in a real office someday, and letting those other suckers be stuck with the kids!
This is what happens when the boss is the taxpaying public, who will always resent the people who serve them because they see the costs out of their own pockets. Every day, the media spoonfeeds the masses a steady diet of small-scale corruption, bureaucratic laziness and ineptitude. Teachers, even the most dedicated, are always smeared with this myth, and all efforts to change it have failed. No, in terms of salary and benefits, the main competitors of teachers are cops and firemen, but they risk their lives every day. At least, that’s the popular conception. Taxpayers will respect professions that they won’t go into, for any amount of money, when the reason is plain fear. Teachers, on the other hand, are mainly seen as overeducated clerks who “entertain” the kids. The popular conception of the job is anything but “heroic”.
But, as I said, I have no statistics on this. I’m speaking from the gut only. For the good of this country, I still hope that the experts in the field will prove me wrong by making real changes in the teaching profession.