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Why Smart, Ambitious People Rarely Become Teachers
15 Apr 2010
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by Forrest Hinton

WARNING: This blog post is utterly simple and obvious.  There are some life phenomena, events, and trends that are widely recognized and accepted by most people as just plain Truth.  (Majority perception isn’t always right, but it often is.)  The argument that follows needs no regressions, 5-page data sets, or integration symbols.

This is a fact: Smart, ambitious people are rarely choosing K-12 teaching as a career these days.

Consider that, in 2007, among high school seniors who took the SAT and intended to major in education, the average scores were a dismal 480 in Critical Reading, 483 in Mathematics, and 476 in Writing.  Compare those scores with the average scores of students intending to become engineers—524, 579, and 510.  Or to students intending to enter the fields of communications and journalism: 523, 501, 519.  Also consider that the most competitive, elite colleges and universities, like Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and Princeton, aren’t offering undergraduate majors in teaching or education.

So why don’t the nation’s best, brightest, most motivated, most talented students choose to pursue K-12 teaching?  This question has been raised for decades now and our society has always known the answer.  Society has chosen, mostly through government policy, and sometimes through its market mechanism, to maintain teaching as a second-rate career that, more often than not, does not attract the smartest and most ambitious.

The reasons the “achiever class” doesn’t enter K-12 teaching are so smack-you-in-the-face obvious that it seems foolish to spell them out here, but I will.  It’s all a matter of prestige and career mobility.

Smart, Ambitious People Want Prestige

People who are intelligent and motivated will do all sorts of dreadful jobs just to obtain a mark of prestige from society.  Think about medical doctors who repair human bodies with sharp, frightening tools and take samples of blood, moles, and urine all day.  These people earn big bucks.  According to BLS, in 2008, dentists earned an average annual salary of $154,270 and surgeons earned $206,770.  Consider lawyers who spend insufferable 12-hour days pouring over mind-numbing, overly complex regulation books and legal codes.  They earned $124,750.  The average middle school teacher? A paltry $52,570.  That’s certainly no  mark of prestige.

People who are intelligent and motivated also want to be perceived as successful.  If I asked you to close your eyes and describe a businessperson, you would likely imagine someone with impeccable posture, in a fancy suit, with a sharp haircut, and with a twinkle in his or her eye.  That imagined archetype looks like a million bucks… a top achiever.  If I asked you to close your eyes and describe a K-12 classroom teacher, on the other hand, something tells me that many of you would imagine a friendly, middle-aged [mostly white] woman who was dressed moderately well, but who didn’t particularly stand out… nice and kind, but not a top achiever.  Those are today’s societal images, I’m afraid.  Smart, ambitious people want society to view them as something great and important, and that’s not a teacher in 2010.

Smart, Ambitious People Want Upward Mobility

People who are intelligent and motivated also want the opportunity to quickly advance their careers.  These achievers often enjoy healthy competition and like to be acknowledged for the outstanding work they do—that’s what drives them.  The lawyer works late into the night preparing the perfect legal memo so that she can become a partner of the firm one day.  The owner of a large chain store works to improve efficiency and delivery methods to gain more customers and expand his business.  But what about teachers?  In most public systems, no matter how well they instruct, no matter how creative or inspiring they are, no matter how much their students are learning, they all get paid a structured and uniform salary.  They also have little room to advance their careers unless they become desk rats in the Land of Red Tape and Bureaucracy.  What smart, ambitious person wants that?

An Utterly Simple and Obvious Conclusion

The bottom line here, stated generally, is that if our society wants to cultivate outstanding teachers from the achiever class, it has to begin to put the right incentives in place for these smart, ambitious people to join the profession.  This involves increased compensation that is based on achievement, changed images and demographics of teachers, opportunities to advance while in the classroom, and, yes, some much-needed, healthy competition.

Today, the public policy decisions our society has made force our schools to recruit too many teachers who, frankly, want stability, do not take risks, and aren’t interested in improving their profession.  This doesn’t mean that there aren’t terrific teachers out there; it means that there aren’t nearly enough.  Programs like Teach for America and The New Teacher Project do help bring smart, ambitious people into our nation’s classrooms, but they aren’t staying long enough to radically improve our schools and our students’ futures.  Their ambition correctly recognizes better career opportunities in business, law, medicine, engineering, etc.

If American society is serious about recruiting the “best and brightest” into education for the long-term (I’m skeptical), it will have to make some game-changing, sometimes radical, incentives changes.  No more of this warm, fuzzy, “I do it all for the kids” mentality.  Much more focus on increasing  prestige and career mobility instead.

Human self-interest simply cannot be underestimated in education.  That’s plain, obvious, and true.  And it needs to be said over and over again.

 

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