October 10, 2003
Those who couldn't now can

Sound familiar?:

"It's become a crisis," says Tom Carroll, executive director of the National Commission on Teaching & America's Future (NCTAF). "We have a bucket with huge holes in it. They're leaving as fast as we pour them in."

Last week, NCTAF hosted a conference on new teachers' experiences in Milwaukee. Participants discussed the ways a minority of school districts – such as Rochester, N.Y. and Columbus, Ohio – have dramatically improved teacher retention, saving money on hiring and retraining new teachers in the process.

But in much of the country, teacher attrition statistics remain downright shocking: Almost a third of teachers leave the field within their first three years and half before their fifth year, according to a NCTAF report.

In the 1990s, for the first time, the number of teachers leaving the profession exceeded the number entering.

It would be easy to sneer, and I do more than my share here, but one of the big stories here is that whereas teaching used to be one of the main avenues for social advancement for the lower middle class and upwardly mobile working class, now there are a zillion better paid jobs for pen pushers and number crunchers. The very economic forces that have made education ever more important in the job market have made the actual manning of educational institutions ever harder. As education gets more "relevant", it gets harder to organise, because those who can educate can now do so many other things. Those who once couldn't and could once only teach, now can do. Yes, the battlefield atmosphere of many classrooms is part of the problem, and the usual ways in which the educational whip is cracked only makes that worse, but don't forget the other half of the equation, which is how much more enticing the rest of the world has now become for the average potential teacher.

Daily contemplation of the world of education is no mere preparation for history, still less immune from history. On the contrary, history is yanking education around as never before. So when some particular thing goes wrong – like classroom discipline, or academic standards, or bullying, or literacy teaching, or kids being hypnotised for hours each day by their own individually owned TV sets, or, as in this case, teacher recruitment – it isn't good enough merely to snarl at the people whose misfortune it is to be standing right next to one of the millions of resulting accidents or misfortunes. Okay, many of these people may not be helping much, and Could Do Better, as teachers like to say. But we live in times when even exemplary conduct by a much increased number of the mere individuals involved wouldn't necessarily solve the problems.

Do I sound like a socialist? Yes. Part one of all socialist arguments says: Society Is To Blame, and that, tarted up, is what I just said. But that doesn't mean that the way to make Society shape up is to nationalise the means of production, distribution, exchange and education. Quite the opposite, I would say. Society, like motor manufacturing, is improved when disowned by governments.

If you hear no more from me before it gets underway, have a nice weekend.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:41 AM
Category: History