Education

Smarter Teachers

From Wikimedia Commons

My new Barnes & Noble nook has me reading more than ever and finally getting to some of the books that have been on my “to read” list for months.  One example is Superfreakonomics by the two Steves: Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner.  I thoroughly enjoyed the first book (Freakonomics) and am finding the second one to be equally fun to read.  The authors basically use research studies to draw connections between seemingly unrelated forces.  They aren’t without their critics, but one issue piqued my interest and I followed some of their references to learn more.

The basic premise is this: the rise of high-paying, prestigious career opportunities for women has been a “brain drain” on the field of K-12 education for the past 30-40 years.  Levitt and Dubner write,

“In 1960, about 40 percent of female teachers scored in the top quintile of IQ and other aptitude tests, with only 8 percent in the bottom.  Twenty year later, fewer then half as many were in the top quintile, with more than twice as many in the bottom.”

They attribute some of this to falling wages (relative to other jobs) and correlate it with a simultaneous drop in test scores.  Harold Levy wrote an Op-Ed piece for the New York Times in 2000, entitled “Why the Best Don’t Teach” in which he makes the same point and suggests that the solution is to “make [the education profession] both more lucrative and more revered.”

I myself have been disappointed by (and benefited from) this statistic in my own career.  Coming from the intensely competitive and academically challenging field of high-profile science, I breathed a sigh of relief when I began life as a teacher.  The hours (at least the required ones) were much better, the leadership was less demanding, and my skills with writing and technology (average by grad school standards) quickly made me feel like the proverbial big fish in the small pond.  I enjoyed rock star status, but suffered when I became the de facto instructional technology trainer for the school.  It is disheartening to see the number of classroom teachers who can not perform basic tasks using a computer or write in a style appropriate for college graduates.

Ironically, I believe that many of the current round of education reforms that include such draconian (and useless) measures as firing all of the teachers in a school are motivated by the lack of top-level students coming into education.  The vicious cycles begins there, and then continues because mediocre students usually become mediocre teachers unqualified to collect and analyze statistical data, utilize modern tools, and explain complex ideas.  Naturally, the reputation of all teachers comes into question, and this repels potential teachers whose mothers-in-law ask them, “You’re so smart.  Why would you want to be a teacher?”

The bigger issue for me is that many teachers seem to fall into one of two groups.  Either they:

  1. Teach because they don’t have any other reasonable employment options, or they
  2. Teach because their spouses (let’s just be honest and say “husbands”) provide enough income for their families.

The patriarchal nature of our society is such that we still expect men to provide at least 50% of the family income, making teaching a tough sell to intelligent men who may enjoy teaching but also enjoy paying their monthly bills.  I am honestly not being sexist.  I wish that women were not discriminated against, and that my wife could make more money than she does.

In the meantime, we male teachers all seem to be “true believers”.  We come to work every day because we love the challenge and we want to develop lifelong learners, just as so many female teachers do.  We care about the future of our country and our planet, and we know that teachers hold the key to fixing what’s wrong.  We work second (and third) jobs because the gap between our salaries and those of our male counterparts in other professional fields is an embarrassing, yet unavoidable, reality.  We do all of this knowing that, in most cases, we could change careers and get an automatic pay raise with less stress and responsibility.

For this guy, it has nothing to do with a “passion for kids” or “touching the future”, and everything to do with my particular skill set.  This is what I’m good at. And, in the end, I wish that the same could be said for everyone that works in this noble profession.  But, until we break the cycle and begin to develop the reputation of teachers as instructional experts who have enormous responsibilities and keen intellect, we will not be able to attract enough individuals who fit that description to the classroom.

4 thoughts on “Smarter Teachers

  1. Paul wrote:
    “We work second (and third) jobs because the gap between our salaries and those of our male counterparts in other professional fields is an embarrassing, yet unavoidable, reality. We do all of this knowing that, in most cases, we could change careers and get an automatic pay raise with less stress and responsibility.”

    This really hit home, today, Paul—considering I’ll miss the entire weekend working second and third jobs.

    And that’s a reality that I’m growing sick of. Pretty much every day, I spend an hour with my daughter. I pick her up at 4 from day care and we hang out until my wife gets home from work at 5. Then, I head back out for 2-3 hours of work—-usually writing something for someone, which is where I make most of our much needed part time cash.

    I’m missing my daughter’s life because my primary profession doesn’t pay me enough to make ends meet—and that sucks.

    I’ve started actively looking for other jobs. I’m considering jumping into the publishing world. Maybe something in copy editing and/or marketing….who knows and who cares as long as I can make enough to pay our bills in less than 90 hours a week.

    Can you tell that I’m not looking forward to working this weekend?

    Bill

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    1. Bill,
      I sometimes get caught up in my students’ Friday afternoon giddiness as they see the weekend creeping close. Then, I remember that I have to spend the weekend finishing up all of the work that I couldn’t get done during the week. This is, of course, not exclusively a male teacher problem (or even a “teacher” problem) but it puts me into a mental place where I can understand the motivation that takes many of my most respected friends out of the teaching profession.

      Thanks for chiming in!

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  2. As a woman teacher, I definitely fell into your #2 category. Had my husband not made enough to support our family comfortably, (sadly) I wouldn’t have stayed in teaching (even though I loved it). Although I empathize with the male teacher dilemma of working multiple jobs, I could argue that many female teachers are also working multiple “jobs” but usually without pay. Even now, the primary responsibility for home and family care often falls to the working mom, but I digress…
    For me, your most interesting statement is: “…until we break the cycle and begin to develop the reputation of teachers as instructional experts who have enormous responsibilities and keen intellect, we will not be able to attract enough individuals who fit that description to the classroom.” This notion is a real catch-22 issue. In my current job, I visit classrooms all around the country. I see far too few “instructional experts” and far too many who lack “keen intellect.” I see far too many teachers who have no interest in learning and growing and only want to be left alone to “teach.” Yet their notion of “teaching” is often deeply rooted in lecture/take notes/memorize/test. So which comes first: attracting individuals of quality who can help change the reputation of teachers or improving the quality of the existing teaching workforce so the reputation changes and attracts “individuals who fit that description”?

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    1. Nancy,
      Thanks for your comment–it has pushed my thinking a bit, and I appreciate it. I completely agree with your assessment of the multitudes of teachers who don’t believe that they need to improve (in fact, I’ve written about that same notion). My biggest desire, though, is for classroom teachers to truly become instructional experts, not just profess to be them. We trust physicians, lawyers, plumbers, and carpenters to be experts at their jobs, yet society feel the need to continually “educate the educators”. We need the public trust back.

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