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Top Colleges Discourage Students From Careers in Teaching

In a professor’s office during my freshman year of college, I had to do it yet again: defend my decision to study elementary education. My professor—someone who, of course, was an educator—asked why I would want to teach young children and suggested that I might want to consider doing something else with my talents, that I could do so much more than be “just” a teacher.

Since a teacher’s intelligence is too often assumed to correlate with the age of her students, I’m not surprised that I’ve encountered so many stunned “why?” comments over the years, questions I never would have heard if I’d decided to be a doctor or an investment banker. They reflect a pervasive and poisonous view that teachers, and especially teachers in public elementary schools, should not have come from the tops of their classes or have graduated from elite universities.

Unfortunately, that perception is too often true. According to recent SAT data, test scores of prospective teachers ranked 16th out of 20 professions, and about one-third of teachers scored in the bottom one-fourth of SAT test-takers. It should come as little surprise, then, that less than 10 percent of teachers in this country graduate from our highly selective colleges and universities.

While it is certainly true that a fancy degree does not a good teacher make, it doesn’t seem like rocket science to assume that those receiving the best education available in the United States would be optimal candidates for teaching our future leaders, innovators, and yes, teachers.

Indeed, enlisting top graduates in the classroom has proved successful for a number of the top-performing school systems in the world. In contrast to the United States, where just over 20 percent of teachers come from the top third of graduates, the teaching force in countries such as Finland and Singapore consists entirely of people who came from the top third of their classes. Moreover, South Korea recruits its primary-school teachers from the top 5 percent of their high-school classes.

So why doesn’t the United States do more to recruit high-quality graduates to teaching? While many have suggested that the lack of financial incentives deters students who can pursue more-lucrative positions, I propose that elite students get the message, loud and clear, that teaching, and especially elementary teaching, is not for them. That is, our top colleges and universities reinforce the notion that teaching is not for exemplary students.

My own teacher-preparation experience illustrates the seeming incompatibility between elementary education and elite institutions. While I managed to complete the necessary coursework for elementary certification, I could not fulfill those requirements within the excellent education program at my prestigious liberal-arts college, as it offered no classes in elementary education. But my college did provide access to the courses: Every Tuesday and Thursday for nearly two years I arranged my own transportation to classes at a less-reputable college across town.

Certainly, my professors and my classmates at the other college provided a much-needed space for discussing elementary education. Yet I couldn’t help but feel shunned each time I drove across town, as though my passions didn’t have a place within my own institution.

For many students, that arrangement would likely have been more trouble than it was worth. The school calendars didn’t align, so I often had to return from my winter break early and miss spring break completely. If I needed to meet with professors or work with classmates, that meant additional trips across town. It certainly would have been easier to study chemistry or government.

My experiences of the obstacles hindering elite students from studying elementary education are hardly unique. Of the 20 best universities, defined by the U.S. News & World Report 2013 rankings, only one offers a major in elementary education, four offer a minor in elementary education, and just six offer elementary certification.

The picture at the top 20 liberal-arts colleges looks strikingly similar. Students can major in elementary education at three, minor in elementary education at six, and obtain elementary certification at only seven. In comparison, students can obtain certification in secondary education at just over half of those institutions—still a low number.

Clearly, our top colleges and universities send an implicit message in their course offerings about what is and isn’t appropriate for their students to study.

Perhaps the best tactic for drawing top graduates to the classrooms of our youngest students is not trying to lure them with financial incentives or short-term stints via programs like Teach For America, but radically changing the perception of who should be teachers.

Perhaps when we speak of wanting the best and the brightest in our schools and lament their absence, we should make it easier for them to study elementary and secondary education and get certified.

But what do I know? I’m just an elementary-school teacher.

Nicole Hewes is a Ed.M. candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She will be teaching second grade in rural Maine this fall.

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