When we graduated from Harvard in 2009, my friends and acquaintances going into education numbered in the hundreds. Our idealism propelled us from ivory halls into classrooms far-flung around the country, where we yearned to use our ambition and our talents to learn to change the world.
Seven years later, I do not know a single fellow alum still in the classroom.
This, along with unequal distribution of social and financial capital across districts nationwide, is one of the biggest obstacles facing American education today: teaching has come to be a transitory career that fails to retain the country’s most capable and ambitious young people. The negative effects on American students, especially those in the country’s most underserved communities, are inestimable.
In order for the state of public education to improve, this must change.
It would be foolish to argue that only graduates of elite schools should enter teaching; indeed, it is imperative that schools of education recruit from all socioeconomic and academic backgrounds. Few, though, would dispute the notability of the fact that, by and large, those with the broadest set of career options do not choose to teach, and that those who do tend to leave after a few short years in the classroom. The minority who stay in education tend to enter administration, policy, or academia. The percentage of elite schools’ graduates who forge long teaching careers is so low that it is statistically incalculable.
By contrast, large numbers of these same schools’ alumni do enter and stay in a field which, in terms of societal import and ubiquity, bears a striking resemblance to education. Medicine, like public education, is a public good whose necessity is as ubiquitous as it is constant. The ways doctors are attracted, trained, and assigned, however, has almost nothing in common with analogous systems for educators.
In order to build and retain a high quality teaching force, then, it may be worth asking: what if we were to attract, train, and assign aspiring educators in the same way we do aspiring physicians?
The potential parallels are considerable. In order to make education a highly sought-after and respected field, we must begin by significantly raising teacher salaries by a factor of at least two. Though I am generally no fan of market-driven education reform, any attempts to improve the quality of the country’s teachers must account for the fact that highly competitive college graduates choose among careers that compensate vastly differently, and that, idealism aside, remuneration does play a significant role in career choices in the real world — especially for graduates with student loans, many of whom come from socioeconomic backgrounds sorely underrepresented in today’s teaching force.
Increased pay would have the beneficial effect of making education a much more competitive field to enter. (In Finland, which has famously transformed its public education system into one of the most respected in the world, fewer than ten percent of applicants to schools of education are accepted.) Applicants to schools of education would be required to take an analog of the MCAT, which would assess mastery of fundamental concepts — child development, theories of pedagogy, contemporary debates in education policy , and the like — precursive to further study in education. Once in ed school, future teachers, like future doctors, would study foundational material for two years before completing semester-long rotations in areas of interest. (Just as medical students might spend several months each in, say, pediatrics, emergency medicine, and psychiatry, ed students might complete rotations in middle school science, kindergarten, and high school special education.)
Then, just as medical students take board exams and apply to specialties before being matched to a specialty and hospital, future teachers would apply to regions and certification areas that interest them. The national matching system for medical students ensures that supply meets demand; this is why, for example, we have the appropriate number of anesthesiologists in Albuquerque, and not thousands of aspiring cardiologists who can’t find work. A national matching system for public schools would require unprecedented national oversight and cooperation; however, it would ensure the end of teacher droughts in certain certification areas and geographic regions and oversupply in others. (Incidentally, physicians in less-popular locales are typically paid more than their peers in popular urban centers — a model which would carry over exceptionally well to a nationally-coordinated teacher pipeline.) Once new teachers are assigned a specialty and matched with a school district, they would complete the type of residency that already exists in some urban districts.
The paradigmatic shifts that such changes would require would be massive — however, they would not be unprecedented. When the United States first created public schools, the effort, aside from being hugely expensive, was historically singular; Finland’s transformation of its education system in the 1990s was similarly monumental (though admittedly situated within a culture that is significantly more progressive and homogeneous than that in the United States.) Contrary to claims, moreover, that more rigorous, structured preparation would limit educators’ agency, the greater independence that Finnish teachers ascribe to the country’s systemic reforms demonstrates that public confidence in educators’ expertise translates to increased autonomy and room for creativity in the classroom.
Now is the perfect time to consider such a fundamental change. Though the new administration and likely Secretary of Education are horrifyingly antagonistic toward public education, the impending chaos may create a context conducive to radical experimentation. Let us, then, seize this opportunity to consider that training and treating educators like physicians may be just the medicine that our ailing public education system so desperately needs.