Adam Ozimek dings me, fairly, for being insufficiently rigorous in how I talk about cultural respect for teachers. So: I will cop to speaking too loosely about respect and satisfaction when it comes to this topic. Adam is right to get on me about this stuff, and I resolve to do better in the future. His methodological point is perfectly fair.
But I do not agree with his substantive conclusions!
While I take seriously the research Ozimek quotes about teacher job satisfaction, despite its methodological qualifiers, I’m afraid I don’t take public polling about respect for teachers seriously. Indeed: asking people how much they respect something in a poll is a pretty perfect example to choose if you’re thinking about the problems with self-reported data. In the abstract, when faced with a poll question, who is likely to say “I don’t respect teachers”? It’s like asking “are you a racist?” on a poll and expecting an answer that tells you something meaningful about the state of American race relations. What matters, in terms of popular respect, is exactly the distance between people’s professed respect for a job or set of workers in the abstract and how highly they respect that profession or those workers in their day-to-day lives. I get that this means that it’s very hard to investigate what respect is, empirically, and I don’t mean to foreclose the possibility of evaluating respect. But I just have a hard time believing that asking people whether they respect teaching will result in self-aware, honest answers. The notion that people should respect teachers is pervasive, and in that I’ll concede to Ozimek. But that also warps the findings of these types of polls.
Besides, if we’re talking about a talent shortage in the way typical of reform rhetoric, then we’re necessarily talking about elite perceptions of the field. Ozimek has repeatedly denied to me that the Ivy League striver types that are at the pinnacle of American aspirational culture have a low view of teaching as a profession. But we can let the people within those institutions speak for themselves. Harvard Graduate School of Education Dean James Ryan — who, I presume, Ozimek would recognize as knowledgeable on this topic– says that only a minuscule percentage of Harvard students study education, despite the fact that almost 20% of Harvard students apply for Teach for America. And Walter Isaacson, who as president of the Aspen Institute has plenty of exposure to both educational research and elite culture, is quoted as saying there’s a perception that “it’s beneath the dignity of an Ivy League school to train teachers.” That’s reflected in institutional behavior: Cornell has stopped providing undergraduate teacher training. That actual institutional behavior tells us far more about what elites think of teaching than polling could.
In 2009, Ezra Klein quoted Sarah Fine, an Ivy League graduate who went into teaching and noted a broad lack of respect from her peers:
One of my former colleagues, now a program director for Teach for America, has to defend her goal of becoming a principal: “When I tell people I want to do it, they’re like, ‘Really? You really still want to do that?’ ” Another friend describes her struggle to make peace with the fact that a portion of the American public sees teaching as a second-rate profession. “I want to be able to do big things and be recognized for them,” she says. “In the world we live in, teaching doesn’t cut it.”
If teachers themselves and people considering teaching perceive a lack of respect, that is a problem for solving a talent shortage even if polls say that people respect teaching.
The Teach for America phenomenon — and I consider TFA a mess, ethically and politically — is indicative of the broader elite attitude towards teaching: something that you do briefly as a matter of charity or obligation, but only for a little while. Sure, they’ll go to a failing Mississippi school district to teach for a couple years, but then it’s off to be a programmer or advertising “creative” or whatever other high-status position they are destined to do for real. (By the way: Massachusetts schools, powerful unions and strong tenure protections and great metrics; Mississippi schools, far less unionization and weaker job security and terrible metrics. Once again, the impact of demographic factors outweighing institutional and policy differences.)
None of this is really a problem for me, as I don’t think our problem is a talent shortage. For reformers, the same question I asked originally still applies: how do you solve a talent shortage without making the profession more appealing, when in fact you’re removing one of the key benefits of that profession? And given the breadth of these topics, we’re talking about replacements in the hundreds of thousands. It’s a question I’m still waiting for a coherent answer to. The notion that we can improve education by getting rid of bad teachers presumes that we’ll be able to replace them with those who are more competent, and in great numbers, in an American political environment where raising taxes to increase teacher pay is untenable. I don’t see how that’s possible. There’s no bullpen, no bench, and I struggle to understand the faith that we can attract and train thousands of new teachers that can actually produce better metrics than the people they’re replacing. Not without paying them more, a sadly foreclosed option in a time of austerity.