My teacher recruitment rant

The setting: a recent Education Writers Association conference; Carnegie Corporation of New York offices; 26th floor of a Park Avenue skyscraper

The panel: “Bringing in the Best: Recruiting and Hiring Practices” featuring Vicki Bernstein from New York City Department of Education, Dan Goldhaber of the Center on Education Data & Research, and Spencer Kympton of Teach for America.

The context: Each panelist had spoken about the importance of recruiting great teachers. TFA received credit for making teaching a selective and desirable option of top-achieving college graduates. Multiple times the assertion was made that not nearly enough graduates from the top third of their college classes are becoming teachers. Baseline compensation matters, but there are other factors (like altruism, selectivity, and a pay scale that rewards effectiveness) that will draw the best and brightest into the classroom.

The rant: (I recreated this as accurately as I could. In the moment my adrenaline was skyrocketing; I don’t often have the mic in a room full of journalists and analysts):

I agree totally—it’s above reproach— with the idea that we want smart and talented people becoming teachers. But I feel that there are a few important pieces to getting excellent teachers in every classroom that have been missing from this conversation so far.

First of all, when we talk about attracting the top third of college graduates, that to me is code for the top third socioeconomically. We know from the achievement gap that social class and money very often correlate to academic achievement. Of course there are tons of exceptions, but this is the trend. We’re saying we need the children of affluence to choose to become teachers.

TFA does a good job of bringing top-third graduates into the classroom. But very few stay beyond two, three, or four years. If people don’t stay, the recruitment crisis is perpetual.

The panel has said “compensation matters.” Compensation is THE prohibitive factor from recruiting and retaining top graduates. I’ll use myself as an example. I’m a top-third graduate from NYU. I love teaching and I have some good evidence to show that I’m effective at it. I want to be a career teacher. But truthfully, it’s not something I could commit to if my wife didn’t have a more financially lucrative job. I grew up accustomed to a lifestyle that allowed for me to live in a house with my own bedroom, occasional vacations, and a college savings fund. I have a one-year-old daughter now and it’s very important for me to try to provide those things for her. On a teacher’s salary, I really couldn’t. Top-third graduates don’t want to move down the socioeconomic ladder. The altruism that TFA harnesses lasts for a while, but not for the long run.

And we need people for the long run. I invite everyone in the room to envision those one or two special teachers that really connected with you and made a difference to you when you were a student. Mine was Mr. Truitt. Think about what made them exceptional. Then think if that teacher was in his first, second, or third year, or if he or she was a veteran. I’m betting he or she was a veteran teacher, a career teacher. We need to get top people to stay.

New teachers are very, very green. It’s not a matter of smarts; it’s about knowing the job. I don’t want my daughter— when she’s in kindergarten or first grade or second grade— to have a first-year teacher, to be part of that person’s steep learning curve. I don’t care if the person got a 4.0 or went to Harvard.

Right now a lot of excellent would-be teachers never go into the profession. They may be have grown up with affluence and won’t consider a downgrade in lifestyle. Or they may be more ambitious toward their earning potential. Or it’s just too much debt to take on to go to a strong teacher education program. There are the alternative certification meat-grinders, but to do it with adequate preparation— time to observe, student-teach, and learn the craft— is just out of reach for most people. I was able to take a year away from full-time work in my mid-20s and go to Teachers College at Columbia University, a top program, only because my parents could pay the enormous tuition of $1178 per credit (plus fees and books) for a 38-credit M.A. program. The restrictive cost was reflected in the homogeneity of the students; my classes were dominated by affluent whites. The profession is extremely hard or impossible to get into if you want to be well prepared.

On top of that, teaching is increasingly becoming a profession of suspicion, disrespect, and warped priorities. The way the discourse on education has shifted, you’re constantly wondering if you’re going to be marked as one of those deadbeat bad teachers, with Michelle Rhee glaring at you from the cover of Time Magazine ready to sweep you out. I’m serious. Who wants to join that kind of environment and commit to it for the long term? Your professional reputation, your job, your pay could hang on year-to-year standardized test scores, which is not a legitimate indicator of a student’s achievement, and yet you have to obsess about it, which is spirit-breaking for you and the kids, and overrides all of the incredible stuff you really could be doing in a room full of young people…

 

As with all good rants, I faded out unmemorably as people on the panel started speaking at once and I accepted my time was up.

The aftermath:

Dan Goldhaber didn’t agree that top third of college grads correlated to top third of socioeconomics. (A leader from the Carnegie Corporation approached me later to re-assert Goldhaber’s point that these were two different entities.) Spencer Kympton mentioned that student loan forgiveness was an important incentive and one that already exists in several forms, but that it should be further explored and expanded.

The next person to get the microphone was a reporter for a small publication who seemed offended that teachers could complain about their pay. He thought of Westchester teachers pulling in six figures with their summers off. The panelists pointed out that teacher compensation varied greatly from place to place.

Since we are currently cutting educator jobs and benefits across the country, I can’t be optimistic that my dreams of highly subsidized, quality teacher education and significantly increased teacher salaries— not determined by high-stakes test scores— will come to pass. I’m still glad I said it. We can’t out-educate or out-innovate anybody with a revolving door of newbies cycling through our classrooms.