If Teachers Want More Respect, They Should Support a System With the Authority to Grant It

In general, the national conversation about teachers is one in which all parties are relatively delusional, irrational, and inconsiderate. For example, see these remarks by Teach for America strategist Ned Stanley on the new TNTP report about the powerful influence of great teachers. In the span of a few paragraphs Stanley manages to illustrate the irrational perspective from which some talk about the teaching profession.

Here’s a fun experiment: take a walk down the street and introduce yourself to three random strangers. In the first conversation, introduce yourself as a heart surgeon.  In the second, as an assistant district attorney. And in the third, as a high school social studies teacher. Gauge the reactions. If you noticed that your final conversation generated less enthusiasm than the previous two, it shouldn’t come as a surprise.


The disparities exist because many Americans believe medicine and law require something that teaching does not: rarified knowledge and immense skill.  And yet I would argue that our country’s greatest teachers have a skill set and knowledge base that is just as unique—and painstakingly developed—as our country’s best practitioners of medicine and law.

And then in the very next paragraph, this:

Until the perception of teachers changes, I’m not confident that we can do much about the fact that our teaching force comes primarily from the bottom two-thirds of college graduates with nearly half being from the bottom third.

Stanley refutes his own argument immediately after making it — teachers aren’t treated like doctors because two thirds of them are unexceptional. Notice how even though “our country’s greatest teachers” are akin to doctors, it’s implied that the other 98% of teachers should also be awarded that status. You see this conflation between “special teachers exist” and “all teachers are special” all the time. And although there are many great teachers, the fact is that most teachers tend to fall around the meaty part of the curve and are eminently replaceable by college graduates looking for a good job with good benefits. That means we’re not going to blindly bestow doctor-level respect on every single teacher.

Once you accept that the respect-fairy isn’t making an appearance, it becomes clear the real problem is that there is no way for special teachers to prove they’re worthy of respect. Society will gladly treat an exceptional teacher like a doctor, but for that to happen there has to be some kind of authoritative, socially accepted system for granting prestige. In other words, there has to be a teacher rating system.

There are a number of reasons why we still haven’t developed a good teacher rating system, but the obvious one is that the most powerful voice in education policy, the teachers unions, have no interest in differentiating between teachers. Any system that identifies a good teacher can also identify a bad teacher, and that makes it marginally harder to protect teacher jobs. Thus the people who often complain we don’t appreciate great teachers are the same people who are standing in the way of systematically identifying those teachers.

What we’re left with is people like Stanley making a circular argument for which they’re on the wrong part of the circle. They want teaching to attract more high status people to help it become a high status position, but it can’t attract high status people until it becomes a high status position. Creating a teacher rating system solves this problem by allowing teaching to become either a high or low status position depending on your role and your performance. Even if teaching never becomes a high status position for everyone, individual teachers will have the opportunity to gain recognition. Over time this will make teaching much more appealing to the high status individuals people like Stanley want to attract. Teachers can complain all they want, but for teaching to become a prestigious position they have to support a system with the authority to grant that prestige. At this point it’s unclear whether the unions will ever put their weight behind making that a reality.

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