respect and prestige

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.


  1. Given all that we understand today about self-reported polling, it struck me as very strange when Ozimek concluded “So teachers are objectively well-respected.”

    1. I give him credit for looking for the evidence, and as I said I cop to being way too breezy about it. But I find it hard to take that kind of poll seriously, given that respecting teachers is something that we mostly all feel like we should do. But maybe that just gets at the extreme squishiness of the construct of respect.

  2. Aren’t you conflating *respect for schools of education* with *respect for teachers*? For example, doesn’t the gap between Ivy Leaguers who study education and who become teachers actually tell us that people don’t respect education degrees, not that they don’t respect teachers?

    I see something similar in journalism. Being a journalist is seen as more respectable than going to journalism school, which is looked upon with great skepticism. And undergraduate institutions like my own, Pomona College, look with pride upon alumni like me who write for The Atlantic… but also think of it as beneath themselves to offer journalism as a major, because they see themselves as teaching people how to think, not training them in a particular profession.

    1. I’m not sure what you mean by “the gap between Ivy Leaguers who study education and who become teachers.” My argument is that in fact very few Ivy League graduates, by most accounts, go into teaching at all, and if they do, it’s only for a short term stint a la TFA. I lack strong data on what percentage of Ivy League and other elite college graduates go into teaching, but anecdotally, that is the widespread perception in ed circles. And the reason is simple: they can make much, much more money elsewhere.

  3. What data, if any, would convince you that teachers are not losing respect?

    Also, even if the absolute numbers in Adam’s data are questionable, what about the change over time? I find it hard to imagine a world where teachers are receiving less respect, yet people feel socially obligated to pretend to offer more respect. What would cause that?

  4. “Not without paying them more”

    No no no you don’t understand. Money is good for the rich and bad for everyone else. Once you get that everything falls into place.

  5. I’m late to this party; however, since this disagreement in part touches upon (people like) me I thought I would contribute for whatever little my value is worth as a single data point.

    Background: I graduated top of the class from one of the better schools in the country, then I graduated top of the class from one of our “elite” law schools. I assume I’m the “talent” you guys are talking about. At present, I’m a rather happy lawyer at a rather large law firm with a rather large (and replenishing) chunk of disposable income which I use to acquire joy.

    Teaching as a Vocation: Flat out it doesn’t pay nearly enough; if I quit my practice and became a teacher all that disposable income vanishes, as does any hope of buying a home outside of Walmart Exurbia. The disposable income, the ability to buy nice property, the ability to invest, to set up my (future) family for a comfortable life etc…are the things drove me to apply myself in the first place. I can only speak for myself, but from my anecdotal experiences, I think the majority of my classmates are right there with me. To get us to teach as a career your need to give us that job security, power and a starting salary around 85k that goes up frequently… Gutting job security isn’t helping…unless you are willing to put even more money on the table for us…Which brings me to my next point…

    “Talent”: Are you sure my type are the people you want to incentivize to teach? We aren’t exactly community minded; as I explicitly lay out our motivations are fairly selfish. We balance money, social cache and our own quality of life and stability with a tilt towards the former two…notice the lack of communal ethic. Striving to do a good job due to a professional ethic, commitment to staying employed and pride is all well and good when you are lawyering or banking…I’m not so sure when you are teaching 12 year olds. I’ve done my share of pro bono community help lawyering, for the most part it was awful. If you (like me) don’t get some kind of warmth of soul from helping out someone you quickly fall back to doing the bare minimum to get that (to you) obnoxious client of your plate. Again, my sense is that my peers are with me. I’m sure obnoxious kids would get the same treatment, that’s why we find tenure attractive(we can coast if we need to).

    As an aside, I think Mr. Deboer is correct. I respect teaching in the abstract. And would say so publicly. It’s a hard job that doesn’t pay enough. But individual teachers? My experience (through 12 years of public school) is that you have some great ones, a lot of well meaning mediocrities and a decent number of half-wits doing damage. My teacher acquaintances now can basically be categorized as somewhat well meaning but not the brightest stars in the sky, who are venal or jaded to different degrees. Again, I think I’m somewhat typical of my peer group…and I think we generally kinda look down on plenty of teachers (there are exceptions). Or not, maybe I’m just here by myself. Anyway, a single data point.

  6. I think there’s sometimes some confusion about “respect” and “prestige” in discussions of these surveys, but I do think that they tell us something about the underlying dynamics driving teaching as a profession.

    In particular, they help explain a few characteristics of teaching relative to other professions in the United States and relative to teachers in other OECD countries:
    1) Low pay
    2) Lots of teachers and ancillary educational professionals (part of this is our much larger investment in IDEA/Special Education services than other countries– but the policies requiring those services come out of a political and economic process, too)
    3) Low within-workplace status

    Not to blindly push economic reasoning, but I think it works quite well as a heuristic here. Think about the supply and demand curves we’ve all seen at some point, with the wage as the price, teachers as the suppliers of labor and districts as the “consumers”: if the supply curve pushes out (because people think that teaching is valuable for society or intrinsically important and rewarding to them), then you get a larger total number of teachers, working at a lower wage, than you would with lower overall respect for teachers. That isn’t exactly the same as “prestige”– unless you’re Eva Moskowitz, you don’t have hedge fund titans asking you to lunch if you’re working in schools. But other “prestigious” occupations tend also to have low pay and poor working conditions ( lab scientists, for example, have a very very tough road to travel.

    Now, there are offsetting effects of these greater numbers; political power *is* amplified by great numbers; there is no doubt that the sheer number of teachers has increased the salience of unions in any educational policy debate; but the unions typically push hard for policies that increase the aggregate number of teachers and increase job security, and much less hard for wage increases (for example, by restricting the number of teachers entering the profession, as doctors do) or changes in workplace conditions, which in the US are often very bad relative to other countries (bad buildings, bad per-day course load, and so on).

    All this aside, the points you’ve made about the effects of supply side policies on the actual of supply of new teachers are of course on the money: Jesse Rothstein had an interesting op-ed in the Times about the supply side effects of firing teachers/reducing job security recently; the working paper he cites is on his website, and is interesting if technical.

  7. When I attended Cornell in the 1970s, I don’t believe the university trained teachers. My recollection was that students, particularly in two of the state colleges (then Agriculture and Life Sciences; Human Ecology) could take courses in child development and family studies and in psychology to meet some of the state requirements, but that practice teaching and so on were arranged by a workaround through what was then SUNY Binghamton. Did Cornell disband a large department of education that I haven’t heard about, or did it drop a half-baked program that was inadequate?

    Some other random observations:

    The evidence that teachers are not respected does not need to come from surveys. Skilled practicing teachers can list copious amounts of evidence teachers are not respected. When I was in high school in New York State, skilled teachers active in the classroom were involved in producing the questions that appeared on Regents exams. My understanding is that the testing company producing statewide tests that measure reading and math skills at different grades does not involve skilled teachers in the state in producing or screening the tests. State legislators do not consult skilled classroom teachers when writing legislation. When a testing regimen is inappropriate or when other regulations for teachers aren’t always practical, there’s no provision to allow a teacher’s professional opinion to trump a regulation.

    There are many people who respect some teachers and despise others, and their experience with bad teachers colors their view of teachers for their lifetime. In order to raise respect for teachers, inadequate teachers need to be forced to improve their performance or be fired. The failure of the U.S. education system currently is first a failure to train administrators to evaluate and support good teachers and to stand up for good teaching, and a failure of school boards to hire effective administrators.

    There are many teachers who aren’t curious intellectually. There are also teacher-training programs that value courses in education more than courses in subject matter. As a result, I think parents and students can sense that the school is not a place of learning and intellectual exploration. Teachers know the basics in a field, but they aren’t subject-matter experts. Moreover, being a subject-matter expert isn’t rewarded — teachers who want extra pay become coaches or administrators. Good teachers don’t necessarily make their work look difficult, so in addition to all other problems, students of good teachers have no idea how complex teaching is.

    There are people who resent teacher tenure and teachers’ unions. Has anyone investigated why and how anti-union sentiment has poisoned respect for teachers?

  8. I am a high school history teacher in NYC and I would like to weigh in:

    1. I left my old career (journalism) for the pay, pension and stability education affords.
    2. Yeah, it’s hard to respect an education degree. But that’s only one of my degrees.
    3. Summers off is awesome, plus when I work, I get to talk about history!
    4. Columbia University, an Ivy, has one of the most respected teacher colleges in the country.
    5. Teaching the children of immigrants, the respect is tenfold. It’s why I stay.
    6. There are morons in education, as in every field. No exceptions. But some of the best teachers are not intellectuals. They just know how to relate to kids.
    7. TFA’s are truly awful people.
    8. Ivy mentality doesn’t work in education, because Ivy grads are always reminded how wonderful they are. Kids sense entitlement and hate elitism and have an innate sense of fairness that adults don’t possess. Not an environment an Ivy grad can survive in.

    That’s my 2 cents.

  9. Freddie, there’s a lot of kabuki going on here.

    Why exactly do we want to end tenure? 1) To fire bad teachers (say bottom 5% each year). 2) To force almost bad teachers to try harder (say bottom 25% each year).

    These are nice, but the answer is actually 3) To technologically remake education into a flipped classroom where the top 20% do the teaching (earning much more), and the bottom 80% are replaced by babysitters (earning much less).

    But wait! There’s even more kabuki going on here:

    4) If high stay high and low stay low, the structure and purpose of education ought to become far more vocational focused particularly for low.

    Arguments that there is very little that a average teacher can do for the average low student, prove:

    1. because we can rely on technology to be the “main” teacher in most people’s lives (flipped classroom).
    2. teaching isn’t as important as babysitting…. parents need to leave their kids someplace while they work, while being babysat we want ALL kids, even the unlucky ones with bad parents, to at least be best prepared for getting and keeping a job.
    3. because throwing “talent” at the bottom half doesn’t have enough ROI to justify it.

    Freddie, I’m not being cute here, you know I support GICYB which specifically allows people who aren’t very good students to live their lives with fun and interesting jobs, and enables anyone who is truly a hustler to be a upwardly mobile small business person.

    Our welfare system is broken. GICYB is the only politically palatable / passable solution to fixing it.

    Once it is fixed, it allows us to view education in the correct light.

    No one int he future can expect to make it into the top 20% of earners without putting in a true 60 hour work week., and being available even more. The other 80% will work in service sector supporting the team that in any given year, go big and dedicate their waking hours to being on call.

    Our welfare system and our education system should be built towards this end.

    Thats just where Pareto leads.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *