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Education in America

Education in America, pt 1: Mythbusting Monday

As we talked about last week, we’re going to be working on an on-going series about education in America.   It’s sure to be one of the hot-button topics this election, and there will be a lot of column inches devoted to our education policy.  Because this is America, and we love our soundbites and scapegoats, we’re not likely to hear about things like curriculum design, supportive administrations and the effects of poverty on a society.  No, we’re going to hear that teachers suck.

So, to battle the tidal wave of teacher hatred that’s headed our way, we’re going to use Mondays to debunk some myths and Wednesdays to explain various education topics and controversies.  This is going to be a lot of fun.

Today’s Myth: Teachers come from the bottom third of college graduates.

Offenders: Time Magazine How To Recruit Better Teachers

More than 85% of U.S. teachers have an education degree. But many ed schools are fusty, politicized institutions that seem designed to turn out reliable teachers’-union members rather than reliable educators. And their lecture halls aren’t exactly brimming with overachievers. According to a forthcoming McKinsey & Co. study, just 23% of new teachers in the U.S. come from the top third of their college classes; 47% come from the bottom third. In other words, we hire lots of our lowest performers to teach, and then we scream when our kids don’t excel.

Whitney Tilson on Huffpo, Rebutting 7 Myths About Teach for America

Whether attrition is a problem or not depends on who is leaving the profession. Sadly, the teaching profession is increasingly drawing new teachers from the bottom third of college graduates so it’s hardly surprising that many of these teachers prove to be ineffective in the classroom. If the 50 percent attrition comes from these ranks, then this is something to be celebrated.

Most of this criticism cites a report on the World’s School Systems by McKinsey and Company.  This report talks about the highest-performing school systems worldwide, including in Finland, Singapore and Japan.  As part of the report, it talks about how teachers are trained, supported, compensated and viewed by society.  In every single area, the U.S. falls short.  U.S. reporters are focusing only on one detail, however.  The U.S. does not attract teachers from the top 10-25% of their college classes, as these other countries do.  The McKinsey report goes on to explore how far Singapore, Japan and Finland go to ensure their teaching forces are both highly qualified and highly supported.  In the U.S., apparently our college graduates are supposed to be so altruistic and noble, they’ll give up a job making enough money to be set for life to work in a profession half the country thinks is made up of idiots.  In fact, one of our most widely read print outlets, Time Magazine, asked in a poll “Why don’t smart people go into teaching?”

This assumption is apparently based on a data point that says college graduates whose SAT/ACT scores were in the lowest quadrile were more likely to chose education as a career path than those in the highest quadrile.  While this fact is disturbing, it does not lead one to, “We hire lots of our lowest performers to teach.” (Sources: Do Teachers REALLY Come From The Bottom Third Of Colleges? Or Is That Statistic A Bunch Of Baloney? by Larry Ferlazzo, which led to Tough Choices Or Tough Times, a report issued by The New Commission On The Skills Of The American Workforce in 2007; which led to Report From The Department Of Education, National Center For Education Statistics, The Condition Of Education 2002.)

In the US, only 24.4% of our population has a Bachelor’s degree, which is the minimum requirement to teach.   Only 5.9% have a Master’s degree, which is held by 16% of teachers with <3 years experience and 62% of teachers with >20 years experience.

So, with the magic of math, we can see that having a college degree already makes an American better educated than 75% of the population.  Even if teachers were consistently in the bottom of this group, which even Tilson acknowledges isn’t true, how can we call anyone with more education than 3/4 of the rest of the country among our “lowest performers”?

Here, I made us a pie chart:

In the comments of the two articles I quoted under “offenders” several people took this data even one step further in the game of telephone happening around education to say that our teacher pool came from the lowest performing third of high school graduates.   Which I then saw repeated in more than one article criticizing teachers.

Like many of your best teachers probably told you through the years, it’s important to look at everything we see and hear with our critical thinking skills fully engaged.

Your homework: I’d like each of you to find an instance online where this statistic about teacher quality has been distorted.


By [E] Selena MacIntosh*

Selena MacIntosh is the owner and editor of Persephone Magazine. She also fixes it when it breaks. She is fueled by Diet Coke, coffee with a lot of cream in it, and cat hair.

12 replies on “Education in America, pt 1: Mythbusting Monday”

I love you.

I just read another teacher article at another blog (I believe it is mentioned below…) and was feeling ragey.
I’m glad I clicked over here to Perseph.

On a related note: in Illinois you can be a teacher if you are bilingual, even if your degree is not in education. A requirement of this provisional certification is that you have a BA and are enrolled in a teacher certification program (which is inherently a Masters degree). While there are some problems with this (these teachers do not even need to have classroom experience- but most principals wouldn’t hire them in the first place if they don’t), people criticize these teachers to no end. One of the criticisms is that they are not educated enough, yet, when they finish their certification programs they end up with an MA in education.

As you alluded to below, this also probably has to do with race. Many of these teachers are minorities and/or non-native English speakers themselves. THIS DOES NOT MAKE THEM UNEDUCATED/STUPID.

That’s how I got into teaching. I’d worked in residential and community care for kids with pervasive disabilities, so I wasn’t going in blind, but I saw a lot of the same criticisms. No matter how prestigious a field teaching may become, it’s unlikely we’re ever going to have a huge talent pool to choose special educators and bi-lingual educators from.
I was one of four people in my entire district (of 40k students) to have a license in intensive interventions as well as mild interventions. I think these are the areas where merit pay for teachers is going to really hurt the profession. My former students, and yours, have bigger priorities at school than filling out bubble sheets, and for both groups a standardized test is probably the least accurate indicator of performance.
So much to write about, so little time. : )

Here in New York, teachers have something like five years or fewer in which to get a masters within graduation of undergrad, or else their teaching certification is not valid, so it’s only the brand spanking new teachers who don’t have their MA/MS. Everyone else does.

That test score bit really kills me. Correlation does not equal causation, and low standardized test scores does not equal stupidity. Arrrrgh.

Not to mention that having a low SAT/ACT score or even a not-so-hot college GPA doesn’t necessarily mean one is unintelligent or unsuited to be a teacher.

I actually find that because the subject area I teach came naturally to me, I have to push myself to look at the content from different perspectives and see how it could be accessed by people with different learning styles.

Thank you Selena! I love that you guys are doing an ongoing column on this. I am writing personal essays with my middle school students right now and am writing alongside them. My personal essay is about teaching and facing the full frontal assault on my profession. They are interested in it and have added to it in ways I hadn’t imagined!

I will share this with them. Thanks again.

Thank you for this more nuanced view! I (used to-until approximately 1 day ago) be a loyal reader of another “feminist” (the reason for the quotations will soon be apparent) blog that starts with j and ends with “ezebel”.Anyways, my reasons for no longer wanting to contribute to that site as a commenter is because in the last week they have published an article without any possible commentary about “bad” teachers in the profession. There was writing about a teacher who taped a kid’s mouth shut, a teacher who muttered during the height of a nervus breakdown about wanting to shoot up the school all without commentary about possible causes of these situations, or about the idea that teaching is a profession dominated by women and is it really any coincidence that it’s totally on the GOP/Tea Partier hit list? Basically the general vibe of these articles are “OMG look at what this socially deivant teacher did?!” without a shred of nuance or questioning how this relates to education, to children, and to the women in the profession.
Anyways, I wanted to thank you sincerely for the nuanced discussion of education in North America, this is quality writing and thought provoking reporting.

There are so many people who stand to gain from the denigration of our teaching force, it really surprises me that more people aren’t looking into the root causes of this explosion of negative education stories. Or at least trying to get to the actual facts behind all of the talking points.

This post could have been 10k words long, I didn’t even get into the discussions about teacher quality among women of color who enter the profession, who get twice as much crap hurled at them than white teachers.

It’s mind- blowing. And it’s so obvious that it’s the system that’s broken, that the problem doesn’t lie with the students or the teachers. I think in particular, the focus on standardized testing is really really sketchy. For instance, I t.a-ed at a state university during my master’s degree in a state where there was basically a mandate that curriculum should focus primarily upon passing the multiple choice state-wide standardized exams (I am not sure what they were because I am a Canadian). The result was at the University level a lot of the HONOURS students couldn’t properly structure a sentence or a paragraph. As someone in higher education, this scares the shit out of me. And I also think that we (us peeps in higher ed) are the next scapegoats when a whole generation of students is unfit for the labour force.

it’s so obvious that it’s the system that’s broken,

Amen! I am reading this series with avid interest. As a parent of a son who was diagnosed with autism at an early age, it urks me to no end that they require him to pass the standardized tests that every other student takes, even though he is a special ed student.

Talk about setting a child up to fail. I say to this to his teachers and they look at me and say, I know! It’s terrible.

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