How We Teach Our Graduates Not to Teach

Mar 17, 2011Bryce Covert

As we strip teachers of pay, benefits, and prestige, we'll lose more and more talent to investment banking.

A new report came out recently on what the US can learn from the countries that most successfully educate their children. The most important recommendation? "Make a concerted effort to raise the status of the teaching profession." While the U.S. is only second to Luxembourg in OECD countries' spending on education, our money is misdirected, going to areas other than teacher salaries like bus transportation and sports facilities. And as the NYTimes notes, the results are clear:

On average, American teenagers came in 15th in reading and 19th in science. American students placed 27th in math. Only 2 percent of American students scored at the highest proficiency level, compared with 8 percent in Korea and 5 percent in Finland.

This recommendation comes at a time when the teaching profession is experiencing a brutal attack, as Republican governors (see: Scott Walker; also: Chris Christie) demonize them and their unions as vampires sucking state coffers dry and lazy ne'er-do-wells who have luxurious pensions and vacation time. But the degradation of the teaching profession isn't a new phenomenon.

Sign up to have the Daily Digest, a witty take on the morning’s most important headlines, delivered straight to your inbox.

When I was graduating college not too long ago, I had my heart set on teaching. I loved working with children and I wanted to give something back to my community and feel I was making a difference. What better way than to educate the next generation? But I entered the profession against all advice to the contrary (except from my mother and grandmother, both educators) and with zero help from my college's career services department. In fact, the only career that department seemed to want to service me into was investment banking. Every time I visited to go over my resume or practice interview skills, I had to answer again why I wasn't interested in being an ibanker. And I struggled to justify to myself entering a profession that promised to pay me so little, with the price tag of my student loans looming over me, when I could have gone into one that would have enabled me to pay back my loans in a heartbeat. In the end I persevered, but many of my friends and classmates did not. And who could blame them? With tens of thousands of dollars (or even hundreds of thousands) in student loan debt, the economically smart decision was to head into high-paying professions.

And in fact, they're not alone. A 2007 study by Jesse Rothstein and Cecilia Elena Rouse found that each $10,000 in loan debt reduces the likelihood that a student will take a job in the nonprofit, governmental, or education sectors by about 5-6 percentage points. This effect is heaviest in the education sector: that $10,000 in debt reduces the probability of taking a job in that sector by 3.3%. The authors came to this conclusion: "It appears that college debt affects post-graduation employment decisions: students with more debt are less likely to accept jobs in low-paying industries and accept higher-paying jobs more generally."

President Obama encouraged young people to go into teaching in his State of the Union, but simply imploring students isn't going to do the trick. It's not just about raising pay, either; it's about raising the public's perception of a teacher's job. While some point to summers off and short hours as signs that it's a cushy profession, the reality is quite different. Andreas Schleicher, who prepared the report, says, "The fact is that successful, dedicated teachers in the U.S. work long hours for little pay and, in many cases, insufficient support from their leadership." I can attest to this from personal experience. I was in the classroom well before 8am every day and stayed after 6pm on plenty of occasions -- not to mention the work I did on the weekends to make sure my lessons would run smoothly and engage my students. And I was far from the hardest worker among my colleagues. Not to mention that I worked at a private school that had excellent support, while many public schools have leadership that is stretched too thin and little budget for professional development.

The most important answer to fixing our educational system, which isn't serving our children, is to bring in more quality teachers. But if we continue to strip them of benefits and dignity, there's fact chance of it.

Bryce Covert is Assistant Editor at New Deal 2.0.

Share This