Educating Potential

On teaching as a profession

When I started kindergarten in the early 1980s, the “face” of the average teacher was Caucasian, female and in her mid-50s. When I walk into my old schools today, the faces that fill the classrooms remain consistently female (with some exceptions) and Caucasian, but they undeniably skew towards young individuals. While there is nothing to indicate that age is correlated with teacher quality, there is significance to the demographic change we see.

The teachers I grew up with were on the tail end of several generations of teachers who entered the teaching profession when the career options of college-educated women and most minorities were largely limited to nursing, secretarial work and teaching. As Marc Tucker noted in Standing on the Shoulders of Giants, “There is reason to believe that the problem with the American teaching force is not that it has long been of low quality and must now be raised, but rather…the American public reaped the twin blessings of a highly capable teaching force willing to work for below-market wages under poor working conditions. Those who accepted that deal are now leaving the classroom in droves.”

For decades we were able to recruit smart, ambitious individuals into teaching because we were not competing with other industries and professions. Yet, the working conditions for teachers with respect to their teaching loads, lack of professional development and growth opportunities, and compensation are at least on par with what they were in the 1950s and 1960s, some would argue worse.

It is no small wonder that, given a whole new set of options, more individuals who might have otherwise entered the classroom, now choose to enter careers that promise higher social status and pay. The challenge for improving American education over the long-term is going to be competing with other high-status professions for the best and brightest graduates.

Too many of the current conversations taking place at the state and local level appear to be focused primarily on attracting bright candidates into the classroom without considering their longevity in the profession. To fill hard-to-staff positions, many high-poverty districts use programs that fill vacancies with well-educated individuals who have no teaching background or training.

These programs tend to select candidates based on academic credentials and their demonstrated belief in the ability of all students to succeed academically. There is evidence that many of these individuals entering the classroom through such programs do not necessarily see themselves as entering the teaching profession, a long-term commitment to the field. Depending on the program, retention rates after five years vary from about 36 to 50 percent. Can we imagine lauding findings that indicated doctors or engineers stayed in medicine or engineering for more than four years?

As we think about the policies that will serve our long-term teacher supply needs, we must determine whether we believe that teaching is indeed a profession. For those who do not, it makes perfect sense that investments in salary, initial training and ongoing professional development may not be worth the time, money and effort.

However, if teaching is a profession, we must examine the models developed by countries that have transformed their educational systems within two generations by adopting thoughtful long-term human capital strategies. Countries that perform highest on international tests today, including Finland, Singapore and South Korea, have taken a clear stance that teaching is a profession. Without exception they have systems for recruiting, training, supporting, and adequately compensating teachers, and ensuring that the profession is elevated in the eyes of potential candidates and society.

What are some of the levers that contribute to the elevation of a profession’s status? Prestigious professions such as medicine, law and engineering have a strong foundation of knowledge that all candidates in the field are expected to know, and therefore put a premium on high-quality preparation. They trust that those practicing in the field have strong professional judgment and provide them with the autonomy to make decisions. They have competitive compensation structures that reflect training and experience levels, and have developed paths for upward and lateral mobility within the field.

Few of these characteristics are evident in the policies that shape teaching in our state and country today, and it is easy to argue that it is precisely these policies that make teaching so unattractive as a long-term career. We must ensure the profession can compete successfully with other high-status professions that promise young people the respect, support, compensation, and opportunities for growth that make professions attractive over the long-term.

First published in Chalkbeat Colorado


  1. Jesse - September 4, 2014 6:30 pm

    When I think about great schools, the first thing I think about is how few of them I’ve seen. The next thing I think about is the high-level of skill and experience the educators in those buildings possess – they are true professionals. Often, there are younger teachers in some of the classrooms but they have been deeply coached on the philosophy and structure of the school through a multi-year residency/apprenticeship-type program before given full leadership of a classroom.

    Unfortunately, being able to consistently deliver great teaching is such a high standard for a classroom given our current context, I think most education reformers have chalked it up as an impossibility (for all the reasons you state in this post) and instead focus on figuring out how you can bring consistently mediocre teaching to scale given how poor teacher prep programs are and how quickly most talented folks leave the profession.

    I believe that places like Edward Brooke Charter Schools in Boston are doing a remarkable job of meeting this unfortunate-but-pragmatic “scaled mediocrity” challenge. Is it the ideal place I would send my child? No, because I’ve seen truly great schools and I think it falls short. But, considering that I can only count on one hand the number of schools I’ve seen with consistently great teaching across all classrooms, would I settle and send my child to Edward Brooke if I had the option? Probably.

    I like that you’ve called this “Educating Potential” because I think it’s a rare forum to write about ‘what should be’ with less emphasis on ‘how it could be done.’ Many of us who work in urban education policy have to grapple with a cascade of compromises in pursuit of “better” at the expense of “great” and it’s refreshing to know this is out there to nurture a sense of possibility. I look forward to seeing more of what you put up here.

    • Ulcca Hansen - September 5, 2014 1:56 am

      Thanks Jesse! It’s great to know I get to work with people like you to achieve the potential of our education system!


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