Thursday, May 25, 2006

Getting Good Teachers

Harry Brighouse, one of my (excellent) professors at UW-Madison and a regular contributor to Crooked Timber, has a post here on the relationship between gender equity in the job-market as a whole and the caliber of teacher that public schools are able to attract. He surmises that since the intelligent and capable women of previous generations did not have the option to pursue careers in, for example, medicine, business, or law, they were instead channeled into the classroom. Whether or not this was their first choice of profession, the results were good for students. If many exceptionally smart women, who can do just about anything they want, end up as teachers, it stands to reason that, on the whole, we end up with better teachers.

Now Brighouse isn't at all suggesting that we should close off opportunities for women just so that we can have better teachers. That would be, among other things, simply unjust. But his analysis is related to an issue of public policy that I have believed in for a long time, namely, that one of the most important things we need to do to improve public education in this country is to attract a "border class" of individuals into the teaching profession. Let me briefly (if not briefly enough) spell out what I mean.

I suspect that there will always be a class of individuals who choose to go into teaching because they feel called to it and would probably do it regardless of the working conditions. These are incredibly smart and capable people who could do most anything they choose but who get into teaching because it is something they believe in and love to do. I happen to know a good number of these people personally (I think some of them may even be reading this post) and let me just say that our world is a better place because they exist. They, and not the dictatorial bureaucrats in Washington, are among the only factors that keep our educational system from falling into complete ridiculousness.

But there are only so many of these people in the world and as a result the rest of our teachers end up being (a) those who would like to do something else but aren't capable or (b) those who like to teach but aren't any good at it. What we need to think about is how to attract the capable people who would love to teach but who choose to do something else because other careers are somehow more enticing. Obviously, one of the biggest factors here is financial and so Brighouse wonders aloud "how much more we would have to spend on employing teachers now in order to attract the talent that used to go into teaching."

This is a separate issue from the more popular one regarding whether teachers are paid too much or too little. That is another post for another day. Rather, it is a question about what kind of financial commitment we have to make in order to get more good teachers in our schools. And if, as I believe, good education is impossible without good teachers, it may be a question that we need to take more seriously than we do.

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