Is Miss Jean Brody Still Alive and Well?

In his second State of the Union address on January 25, 2011, President Barack Obama placed the need for excellent education and superb teachers at the center of his speech to Congress and the nation. Innovation and American welfare depended upon building human capital and that could only be accomplished by parents dedicated to the education of their children, and by creating excellent schools that housed and honored exceptional teachers. "We need to teach our kids," the President said, "that it's not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair." In comparing the way we, as a nation, treat teachers he noted: "In South Korea, teachers are known as 'nation builders.' Here in America, it's time we treated the people who educate our children with the same level of respect."

The need for exceptional teachers, especially at the primary and secondary school level, was emphasized in a much-heralded 2007 report of the National Academy of Sciences, "Rising Above The Gathering Storm":

Today, there is such a shortage of highly qualified K-12 teachers that many of the nation's 15,000 school districts have hired uncertified or underqualified teachers.

This means that 30 percent of students taking English courses are apt to be taught by a teacher without an English degree or certificate, 60 percent of the students taking chemistry are likely to be taught by someone without certified training in chemistry, and an even higher percentage of unqualified physics teachers. These statistics speak only to having teachers who are at least minimally qualified to transmit knowledge in the subject they are professing to teach. It says nothing about the quality of their minds or whether they are capable of inspiring young people; it says nothing about who actually appears in today's K-12 classrooms.

Jean Brodie, the central character in the Scottish novelist Muriel Spark's "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie," opines to her teenage students: "Little girls! I am in the business of putting old head on young shoulders, and all my pupils are the crème de la crème. Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life." Many of us remember such extraordinary influential teachers that we had in high school. The renowned commentator on education, Diane Ravich, remembers her beloved high school English teacher, Ms. Ratcliff. My mother, who taught English at a New York City high school for many years, had a following of former students for most of her life -- those who were influenced by her intellect, her ability to bring literature alive, to inspire and heighten critical thinking, to say nothing of what seemed at the time to be her bohemian dress and style of living (she would wear black stocking to school!).

There are undoubtedly many young people today who are deeply dedicated teachers throughout the United States. But I question whether President Obama's goals are more than illusory, if worthy objectives, without changing significantly the pipeline into the teaching profession. Changes need to occur in the conditions of support for talent once it is in the schools, the tax structure of most states, and the ability to hold onto those young people who are drawn to K-12 teaching for idealistic reasons, but who quickly find the struggle to survive in the public school system more than they can handle.

The NAS report said: "Our public education system must attract at least 10,000 of our best college graduates to the teaching profession each year." (p. 115) But how is that goal attainable when teachers in the United States miss out on the three forms of rewards that draw individuals into occupations: prestige, income, and power to articulate and develop the curriculum? The most ambitious of the young ones are left to their own devices, without organized support for what they do and without incentives to continue in the profession. In many large school districts teachers belong to unions that mimic a trade union mentality that has little interest in instructional meritocracy, where union leaders confirm Robert Michel's "iron law of oligarchy" -- they are more interested in maintaining their power than improving the school system through collaboration with school boards.

Consider a few facts. The vast majority of women in the K-12 system continue to be white women. The average starting salary in the New York City public school system for a student just graduating from Columbia College who teaches Chemistry is about $45,000. Neonates in the New York Police or Fire Departments earn slightly more. And contrast this with the salary of a first year law associate at a top New York firm who would earn roughly three times this amount, or a first year appointment to one of the top brokerage firms on Wall Street who, with bonuses and stock options, would earn even more.

Would Ms. Ratcliff and Mrs. Cole become secondary school teachers today? The likely answer, "no," lies in recognizing one of the most remarkably unintended consequences of our society's fortunate increase in gender equality over the past 45 years. Elementary or secondary school teaching was the occupation of choice for many of the most brilliant young women in our society who needed to or chose to work. They actually had little choice. And they believed they would achieve respect in those teaching positions. Professions like law, medicine, business, and university teaching and research were largely closed to these women -- many of whom had graduated from the best colleges and universities in the nation.

Of the scores of great women scientists that I've interviewed over the past 40 years, most believed their destiny was to be a high school or elementary school teacher until they managed to be redirected into scientific and scholarly research at universities -- rarely with regular faculty positions. Today, these same brilliant women are entering the previously off-limits professions in droves -- are earning far higher initial salaries, enjoying greater prestige and better opportunities for advancement.1 The simple fact is that the quality of the K-12 teachers today is not what it once was. It will take major incentives, and not only higher salaries, to enlist today's most talented women and men to consider careers as K-12 teachers. While the relative prestige of teaching has increased in recent years, the salaries and opportunities for wage growth lags far behind the other major professions. And the current outlook for creating financial and work-related incentives for the best young minds to enter teaching is not bright as states and local governments look to cut deeply into their education budgets. Maybe the truth is that as a society we don't really value or understand the consequences of good education systems.

1In 1972, less than 10 percent of entering J.D. law school students were women; in 2008-09, it was 44 percent -- down from the peak of about 50 percent in 1993. In medicine, 47 percent of the first year students were women, far exceeding the percentage 40 years ago.