Field of Science

WSJ: Teach for America "proves" that teachers don't need pay

I know it’s my own fault for evening opening the Wall Street Journal to the editorial page. But somehting I found there last weekend irked me more than their usual “liberals are naive idiots” fare.

An editorial entitled "Amazing Teacher Facts" argued, using the example of Teach for America, that teachers don’t need to be paid any more than they currently are. If these bright young college grads are lining up to teach in inner-city schools at standard salaries, and doing a good job of it, then clearly money isn’t the issue in hiring quality teachers. The culprit must instead be the bureaucracy that requires teachers to take “education” courses (their quotes) to enter the profession the normal way.

This pinched my nerve because I did Teach for America, teaching for two years at Austin High School in Chicago. I was lost my first year and barely competent my second, but in a school with a large number of burnout teachers, this made me a valued member of the faculty.

So yes, TFA teachers do make a positive contribution to their schools. Some of them even become outstanding teachers. This despite being paid a salary that, while livable for 20somethings with no families to support, is far less than these Ivy League grads could be making on Wall Street.

But the WSJ editorial completely fails to ask the question of why, precisely, these Harvard and Yale types are flocking to teach in inner-city LA and rural Louisiana. In my opinion this is due to a phenomenal feat of marketing on the part of TFA. They managed to convince college seniors that teaching is A) a noble cause (which it always has been) and B) an attractive career move (which it never has been in the past.) Paradoxically, by admitting such a small percentage of applicants, TFA has made teaching an elite profession, at least when it is done through TFA. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had that went:

“I’m a high school teacher”
“...through Teach for America.”

What the example of Teach for America proves is precisely what the Wall Street Journal was unwilling to admit: that to recruit quality teachers, you need to raise the status of the teaching profession. Our society usually equates status with money, so the most direct way to get qualified teachers is to pay them what they’re worth (six figures, at least!) TFA is bringing new respect to the teaching profession, but it will never be able to fill our massive teacher shortage while simultaneously maintaining its elite identity. Fixing public education will require a societal consensus that teaching is one of our most important professions, and they need to be paid accordingly.


  1. Yeah, my roomie Derek did Teach for America too, and he said he was basically just thrown into a total shitstorm! Man the WSJ blows.

  2. Oh hey I didn't know that! I should talk to him about it. Shitstorm sounds about right, though I'm still glad I did it.

  3. When you say something like "TFA is bringing new respect to the teaching profession" it is no wonder why some of the teachers in the communities we work/live in feel threatened or disrespected by the movement. I would like to see TFA do a better job of honoring those teachers that have been part of the struggle for educational equity for 20, 30, 40 years in our most undeserved communities. It was those teachers who in Camden, NJ gave us Abbott Legislation equalizing per-pupil funding between the most impoverished and the wealthiest districts.

    Ben, I wholeheartedly agree that "fixing public education will require a societal consensus that teaching is one of our most important professions."
    But, I would hate to see dramatic salary increases create the kind of elitist cache that pollutes other prestigious careers. Imagine teachers like day traders and lawyers in the 80's pushing kids to improve by x percent on a state test so they could get their performance bonuses and buy that summer house in the Bahamas.

  4. Kevin, if you even think that's remotely possible then you have no idea what teachers currently get paid.


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