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.
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