Status Matters

This morning, I came across this article on reforming education, which summarizes a new report on comparative educational systems.  I haven’t had time to read the full report yet, but here’s the bit that made me sit up and take notice.

To improve its public schools, the United States should raise the status of the teaching profession by recruiting more qualified candidates, training them better and paying them more …. “Teaching in the U.S. is unfortunately no longer a high-status occupation,” Mr. Schleicher says in the report.

Our education system is predicated on the notion that luuuuuurve for teaching can replace status and pay. I can see why it’s an appealing idea, but it assumes that teachers* are just so fulfilled by the opportunity to nurture that they don’t need to be appreciated, trained or paid appropriately. For some teachers this may be true, but it’s hardly the way to manage the future of our country.

If you think the status thing doesn’t matter, let me tell you a story. When I was applying to graduate school, I looked into doctoral programs at a number of places, including an excellent program at Teachers College Columbia University. Now, TC’s specific ranking varies from year to year, but we’re talking one of the top five education schools in the country. I met with the man who is now my advisor and loved him**. I won a prestigious scholarship, which in turn gave me the freedom to define my own research agenda. The program’s close links with other departments meant I could do the interdisciplinary work I do best. Plus they were willing to invest in developing a research lab in my area. It was clearly the right choice for me!

Want to know the most common reaction I got?

“Why would you go there? You’re way too smart to go to an education school.”

This was generally followed by:

“You know, you won’t exactly be among your intellectual peers.”

Or sometimes by:

“Are you okay being stuck in education for the rest of your career?”

Yup, status message received loud and clear. Fortunately I was not scared off by these kinds of comments. I did go to Teachers College, and I did find a community of intellectual peers, and I do have diverse and exciting career options, including education programs. As I’d hoped, I had the freedom to do my own work, and the opportunity to teach and lead and publish early in my career; I do not think I could have had the graduate experience I did anywhere else.

At the same time, I find myself distancing myself from the institution when I would like people to see me as smart and competent. “I’m in an interdisciplinary research program,” I’ll say. Or, “I’m getting my PhD from Columbia GSAS.” These are both true, but they also let me avoid being pigeonholed. The moment I say the words “Teachers College,” I get a very different vibe***.

My determination**** is pretty legendary, and you can see that it does not make me immune to the status issue. So it makes me wonder just how common our silent losses are. How many people do rethink their choices when encountering these attitudes? How many people would never consider education as a choice in the first place? I’m guessing lots, and lots, respectively. Maybe I’m overestimating how much people care about status – but given my personal experience, I think not.

* And does it surprise anyone, given this rhetoric, that teaching is a female-dominated profession?

** He continues to be excellent on a daily basis. We both chose well!

*** This is doubly true because I’m a woman; you could do a reasonable status ranking of programs within Teachers College based on how many male students enroll in each.

**** It’s the good kind of stubborn!

3 thoughts on “Status Matters”

  1. “This is doubly true because I’m a woman; you could do a reasonable status ranking of programs within Teachers College based on how many male students enroll in each.”

    Oh that’s fascinating. I wonder if the percent-women-as-status-proxy thing could be shown in a larger context than TC. Maybe looking at different professions and controling for average years of education required for each?

    1. I just emailed the Office for Diversity to see if I can get demographic data on enrollment at TC by department. Let’s prove it for TC, then move on to the larger world!

  2. So sad a situation. Here in France, the problem is the same : teachers were once notables, but now there are seen as just “left-wing strikers” or “holidays upper crust”. And unfortunately, sometimes they have reasons. Most people that plan for a teacher career do so primarily because they like the subject, or because of the numerous holidays, not because they want to teach, not because they think education is the best way to enable brighter days, which they should.

    I’m currently studying for the education examination in mathematics, and some of my fellow students clearly lack the social and teaching gifts, even though they are very good at math. For me, it should be secondary. Being a teacher is about teaching, not about mathematics or geography. Worst, some of them took this course just because they fail to be accepted at some other academic master, often very theoretical.

    And really, parents don’t see teachers as moral ideals anymore, so the pupils aren’t taught to respect or admire their schoolmaster.

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