Smart women now have lots of career opportunities, which has lowered the quality of the teaching force. That's the conventional wisdom, but is it true?

Writing in the New York Times, Virginia Postrel analyzes a study of teachers' aptitude scores (used as a measure of teacher quality). From 1964 to 2000, there was little change in teachers' scores. But the best female students are much less likely to choose teaching careers today. Postrel writes:

"Whereas close to 20 percent of females in the top decile in 1964 chose teaching as a profession," making it their top choice, the economists write, "only 3.7 percent of top decile females were teaching in 1992," making teachers about as common as lawyers in this group.

So the chances of getting a really smart teacher have gone down substantially. In 1964, more than one out of five young female teachers came from the top 10 percent of their high school classes. By 2000, that number had dropped to just over one in 10.

The average has stayed about the same because schools aren't hiring as many teachers whose scores ranked at the very bottom of their high school classes. Teachers aren't exactly getting worse. They're getting more consistently mediocre.

Another study looks at the effect of unionization on compressing the range of teacher pay: All teachers earn about the same, regardless of their abilities.

"Women who went to a top 5 percent college earned about a 50 percent pay premium in the 1960's and earn about the same as other teachers today," Mr. Leigh said. "By comparison, somebody who went to a bottom 25 percent college earned about 28 percent below the average teacher in the 1960's, and they have the earnings of about the average teacher today."

In hiring teachers, we get what we pay for: average quality at average wages.

There’s another reason smart women don’t become teachers. It can be dangerous.

Physical assaults on teachers are up 17 percent this year in Chicago, reports the Chicago Trib.

Janet Pena-Davis is barely five feet tall, but the veteran English teacher doesn't scare easily.

One day, though, a girl arrived 15 minutes late to class -- and full of attitude. When the girl took out a snack and began to talk loudly to a friend, Pena-Davis asked the student to leave the class and try again the next day.

The girl hurled a full soda can at her head.

Pena-Davis was able to duck the can. But as the teacher went to close the classroom door, the girl dragged her into the hall and began to beat her --punching and scratching, pulling off her glasses and tugging viciously at her hair. The attack was enough to terrify Pena-Davis, 55, who walked out of Austin High School that day and never went back.

Teachers complain violent students get short suspensions and return to class before the victim's bruises are healed.

Pena-Davis was assaulted by a girl who'd just returned from a 10-day suspension.

The school disciplinarian told her to be careful because the girl who had beaten her up had a boyfriend who already was looking to avenge his girlfriend's arrest, Pena-Davis said. When she asked to fill out an assault report, she was told it was not necessary, she said.

When she called to follow up on the police report that was filed, the police told her to give up, she said. Nobody was going to pursue the case.

Failing Teachers

Philadelphia's middle school teachers are having trouble showing they're qualified to teach their subjects. Many are former elementary teachers who aren't subject-matter specialists. Half of the "district's 690 middle school teachers who took exams in math, English, social studies and science in September and November failed," reports the Inquirer. Nearly two-thirds of middle school math teachers failed the exam.

The district will offer test prep classes to teachers who have to retake the exams, and will try to hire people who know math to teach math.

Fake Master's

Not everyone kills their buy-a-college-degree spam. In Georgia, six teachers will have to pay back $30,000 in pay raises they received for earning advanced degrees from an online outfit based in Liberia that sells "life experience" degrees.

Letters

M. Bruno writes:

As a fifth grade teacher who does his darnedest to create a traditional atmosphere in his classroom, I'm sad to confirm that, for most students, the teacher's instructions are just one more opinion to be taken or not, usually not.

I have sat down with students to discuss their writing, going over suggestions and corrections I have taken the time to gloss onto their drafts. Most of the time, the final draft is simply a slightly neater rewriting of the draft, complete with every error I corrected. My suggestions are usually dismissed with the explanation, "This is the way I do it." The fact that their grades are penalized does not deter them. At most, they assume that I haven't given an "A" because I'm "mean."

This phenomenon confirms what I and many of my honest colleagues have known for a long time. The crisis in American education is not one of academics, but of character. These children have been coddled and rewarded for expected behavior, and even failure, through the primary grades. They are the children of a society that places the self at the center. They have a definite problem related to self-esteem: they think they are God. What business do we have in actually assuming we can teach them anything?

Until we drop the educational fads developed by out-of-the-classroom experts who have never left adolescence, the problem will only get worse. The foundation of scholarship, of being a student, is not knowledge, but the self-discipline, outward view, and humility of character that makes one teachable by others, by the world, and by one's self.

Art Davis of San Jose, Calif., writes: 

All those student attitudes and deficiencies you write about have also hit college.  Under post-modernism, if Ohm's Law is not a product of one's own culture -- and therefore only a relative truth -- then failure to get it right on an exam should not lead to the answer being marked wrong.

Very frequently, a student returns his or her objective exam to me after grading and explains that he or she "should have been marked wrong” on Question Five because "I really didn't know that one," but Question Seven should be marked right because, "I had the right concept and just made a sign error." All exam results are matters for negotiation!   

Mike Martin of El Centro, Calif., says: 

A dumbed-down curriculum is the curse of the liberal thought process in action. If children are struggling, we can just make it easier for them, then give them passing grades! I will not allow my children to fall into that trap, and I challenge them to learn at the appropriate level for their age. If children cannot read Shakespeare, then they should take an English class that will help them read that type of literature, or go into a different literature class. 

And this notion that happy students are successful students is ridiculous. Kids will struggle and have to fail at tasks from time to time. That is at the heart of learning. Handing out free A's and B's sets children up for failure. 

Carol Golden of Marion, Iowa, says: 

I read with interest the comments about learning to read Shakespeare in the original.

For 16 years I worked in public schools, both at the elementary and the high school level.  Students who desired to read and succeed worked hard. They could read Shakespeare, were involved in extra-curricular activities, and many also worked after school. 

Many though felt that they were owed an education and would not expend the effort required to succeed. They did want the money though from any job they had, or the high grade in a class just for showing up. They were the ones who blamed others for their failure to succeed. Also, there is a perverse sort of reverse snobbery involved. It is almost like a badge to say that one doesn't read anything intelligent. 

We have very good teachers, but we also have those who feel that we shouldn't test students, those who succeed shouldn't be rewarded, and that school is way too difficult. Those teachers feel we should dumb down (my words not theirs) education, and are frightened of accountability.  The good teachers are fighting an uphill battle with the teachers unions, and a society which wants instant gratification without hard work. 

I learned to love Shakespeare in high school, being taught by a nun who was a Shakespearean actress before donning her habit. She brought it alive in the classroom making us want to act out the parts. I still read Shakespeare in the original just because it is nice to see language which isn't crude. Words mean things!

Ken Stanley writes: 

I have two words for your readers who see no value to "broadening" their education with liberal arts subjects: Trade School. Colleges and universities are supposed to expose young minds to the whole spectrum of educational opportunity (except, of course, for conservative view points), not prepare students for narrow vocational futures. I was brought up to believe that learning never stops, and thank God I didn't limit that learning to data entry.

It seems to many in our country, education has simply become a means of acquiring a job skill and a paycheck. When I went to school I was told that if I wanted to learn a trade, go to a good technical college, but if I wanted an education, go to a university. 

Vanessa Tuttle of Albuquerque, N.M., writes: 

Shakespeare's value is in the beauty of the language. To reduce his work to a mere plot is the same as teaching that flowers are only useful for plant reproduction, oceans are just a salty tub of water, and sunsets are only the end of another day. What a sad place our world becomes when beauty loses its value for us and future generations. Fortunately for me and my children, my high school English teacher cured me of my "why do I need to know this junk" attitude by constantly exposing me to all forms of art, written and otherwise. How do I thank someone like that for opening up an entirely new world to me? The same way all of us should thank all teachers like him -- by continuing their work in today's schools. 

Robert Piagentini writes:

I've heard for years how writing, reading, written comprehension, and communications skills do not affect technical professions like chemistry, engineering, and physics. As a mechanical engineer and a combat engineer in the Marine Corps, I can tell you for certain that the ability to communicate with verve and clarity is what sells your concepts and ideas to your superiors as well as clearly defines for your subordinates what their tasks are in a complex project and what the end state of the mission or project is.

Shakespeare, Greek plays, and other classic stories (War and Peace, Ivanhoe, even Pride and Prejudice) help people learn to communicate with clarity and passion.

Doug Sims of Indianapolis, Ind., writes: 

I was a science major; I am now a chemist. Shakespeare did not help me with chemistry.  Macbeth never had to synthesize a molecule. But, through Shakespeare, and literature in general, I learned much about the world. I can compare myself to others who have a strict BS degree, and I am definitely the more well-rounded, capable person. Basically, I am never bored.  I am able to relate to a wide variety of people in my profession, and am able to teach others various concepts about chemistry, simply because I have a knowledge base outside hard science. 

When I was a student, I didn't realize how much Shakespeare (and other authors of literature) would influence me. Now, I'm glad I took those classes. I am the better for it.

We must insist on excellence, from our schools, our leaders, and ourselves. 

Geoff Price of Austin, Texas, writes: 

Those correspondents who contend that Shakespeare is irrelevant are completely misguided. Archaic terms found in the bard's work make logical sense once one sees the connection between the word in question and the overall structure of the English language. The making of such connections trains ones mind so that one becomes adept at thinking on one's feet. This is a skill which is useful and necessary when making sales presentations, explaining technical product details to customers, cross-examining witnesses, teaching chemistry classes, performing surgery, negotiating international treaties, commanding troops, fighting fires, caring for children, writing novels, capturing criminals, or pursuing any other human endeavor.

People who miss this point tend to be surly, uncommunicative, difficult to work with, and generally only partially effective in their chosen fields.

Barbara D. Duder says:

I personally believe that a little bit of Shakespeare really is very important, regardless of students’ career choice. However, I do not believe that Shakespeare’s plays should ever be “read.”

William Shakespeare never intended for the plays that he wrote to be read in an English class. To be truly appreciated you have to watch a Shakespeare play. I think that the idea of using modern English translations of the plays in class is a wonderful opportunity to open up people’s minds to the wonders of Shakespeare. Once the students gain a basic understanding of the play, let the students watch it in the manner that Shakespeare intended. There is a short version of Hamlet with Mel Gibson and a terrific full version by Kenneth Branagh. Branagh also has produced excellent versions of Henry V, Othello, and Much Ado About Nothing. Even though these films are almost word for word from the original plays, the “difficult” language falls away as a person becomes caught up in the story.

 

Joanne Jacobs writes about education and other issues at JoanneJacobs.com. She’s writing a book, Ride the Carrot Salad, about a start-up charter high school in San Jose.

Respond to the Writer