Ask the Stanford Class of 2012 what they plan to do next year, and you will receive many impressive responses. There are countless students aspiring to prestigious professions as doctors, lawyers and academics. There are those entering the high-tech industries of software, programming and engineering.
There are also those choosing to enter the arenas of business, consulting and investment banking. All of these fields are united in their high salaries and resultant prestige, and it is generally no surprise when another bright and high-achieving Stanford student chooses one of these career pathways.
One answer you are less likely to hear is that of “teacher,” a profession that popular opinion does not quite equate with the others mentioned above. Unfortunately, the status afforded to elementary, middle and high school teachers is not very high, both on the Stanford campus as well as around the country. A recent University news article explores the differences between the Finnish school system and U.S. education, noting that teachers in Finland are compared to lawyers and doctors while teachers in the U.S. are perceived to be more on par with “nurses and therapists,” according to Finnish education expert Pasi Sahlberg.
Other authors have also addressed the diminished prestige of teachers. Pulitzer prize-winning New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof remarked in a March 2011 piece that, “We should be elevating teachers, not throwing darts at them.” At a time when the U.S. educational system is losing its competitive edge against the schools of other countries, it is lamentable that the choice to enter the teaching profession is not always highly regarded by students graduating from elite colleges.
By “the teaching profession,” we do not mean temporary stints in education, such as those provided by Teach For America (TFA). Skeptics of the program remind us that participation in TFA does not indicate that students seek to be teachers; indeed, last year this Editorial Board highlighted the appeal of TFA as an organization that “has turned education reform into a status symbol” (“Teach for America’s Rise Reveals Need for Options,” March 9, 2011). Some students certainly use TFA as a springboard to either professional schools or different career paths, but one should not generalize the motives of those well-intentioned students admitted to the TFA corps. A study published in October 2011 on Education Week finds that 60.5 percent of TFA teachers continue as public school teachers beyond their two-year commitment. Whether this means that TFA members take up a long-term career in teaching or merely one additional year past their two-year TFA contract is unclear, but it suggests that they are not necessarily ending their tenure as teachers with their completion of TFA.
Still, the popularity of temporary teaching fellowships does not address the root problem of low teacher status in U.S. society. Several means of addressing teaching’s lack of prestige have been proffered. Kristof’s suggested solution, based upon findings of a McKinsey study, calls for an increase in teacher salaries. Sahlberg, referring to teaching qualifications in Finland, points out that candidates must complete a three-year master’s degree before teaching. He notes that teachers in Finland are highly coveted, and primary school teaching positions are harder to obtain than entrance to medical school.
All of these possibilities — more selective admission to teaching positions, more stringent educational requirements for teachers and higher teacher salaries — are essentially methods of elevating status. And for better or worse, this may be the most effective way to make the job more appealing to graduates of elite colleges such as Stanford. But if we want results that will not take their toll upon the current educational system, we cannot suddenly restrict admission to master’s programs in education or increase the number of years in the program. The current nationwide shortage of qualified teachers renders these options incredibly damaging in the short-term. Nor can schools simply offer higher salaries without cutting costs elsewhere.
More important is a shift in mindset, a shift that will hammer home the point to Stanford students that teaching is as noble a profession as any other and certainly one that is crucial at this point in time. Reminders from professors to consider teaching as a career; events to showcase the importance of teachers in society — these are just some possibilities. Those students pursuing degrees at such programs as STEP, offered by the Stanford School of Education, should be no less proud than their peers of their interest in a teaching career. And for those students who would raise a questioning eyebrow at a peer who aspires to be a high school teacher — this is the attitude holding back the US educational system. The change must begin now, and it certainly must begin at the level of elite institutions such as Stanford.