Many beloved teachers Jaime Escalante, Frank McCourt, even Socrates came to the profession after holding other jobs first. Escalante was a computer technician before becoming the Los Angeles math teacher made famous in the 1988 film Stand and Deliver; McCourt worked at New York City's Biltmore Hotel before teaching for 30 years; Socrates was an experienced soldier. Teaching has always held an appeal, a kind of purity, for those disillusioned by their daily toils.
It has never been easier for nonteachers to become public-school teachers, sometimes with just a few weeks of training. In recent years, hundreds of programs have appeared around the U.S. to help people stop practicing law, brokering real estate or selling furniture and start teaching. In Memphis, for example, you can be sitting at a bank desk poring over quarterly reports in May and be teaching algebra by August.
A whole new industry has emerged to encourage recent college graduates and experienced professionals to regard teaching as national service. The most prestigious program, Teach for America (TFA), is enjoying its 20th anniversary amid a wave of fulsome press and a crush of applications from Ivy League and other elite applicants. More than 46,000 sought TFA positions for this fall; 12% were accepted.
Because it has been so difficult for poorly funded schools to find and keep teachers, TFA and similar organizations are quietly becoming part of the Establishment. Last year the city of Memphis handed over authority for recruiting all new teachers to a New York City based nonprofit called the New Teacher Project (TNTP). Before school started in August, one way TNTP filled the approximately 800 open teaching positions in Memphis a typical annual hiring number for a big city was with its Teaching Fellows, a corps of accomplished career changers recruited from around the nation. Founded in 1997, the fellowships operate in 18 locations in the U.S. You may have seen the ads: "Be more than just a role model. Be a teacher."
TNTP's fellows and those accepted into TFA get to skip typical teacher-certification processes. How school districts certify teachers and how states license them varies widely, but generally applicants won't be considered without an education degree. (A bachelor's degree is usually enough, especially in urban schools that endure wild turnover.) TNTP and TFA are controversial among teachers'-union members and education professors because the organizations put new teachers in classrooms after only five to seven weeks of boot-camp training.
But TNTP and TFA argue, correctly, that many of their Ivy League applicants would never teach at all if they had to earn an education degree first. The groups have powerful allies. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, a contrarian 45-year-old who used to run the Chicago school district, has spoken admiringly of both organizations. And not long ago he gave a speech denouncing the traditional system of teacher-training: "By almost any standard," he said, "many if not most of the nation's 1,450 schools, colleges and departments of education are doing a mediocre job of preparing teachers for the realities of the 21st century classroom."
More than 85% of U.S. teachers have an education degree. But many ed schools are fusty, politicized institutions that seem designed to turn out reliable teachers'-union members rather than reliable educators. And their lecture halls aren't exactly brimming with overachievers. According to a forthcoming McKinsey & Co. study, just 23% of new teachers in the U.S. come from the top third of their college classes; 47% come from the bottom third. In other words, we hire lots of our lowest performers to teach, and then we scream when our kids don't excel.
Changing the profession will require changing perceptions: in a new TIME poll, 76% of respondents said many smart people don't go into teaching because it doesn't pay enough. That may be true, but most respondents in a McKinsey survey of 900 top-third college students said they believe, incorrectly, that garbage collectors are paid more than teachers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average K-12 teacher in the U.S. makes approximately $49,000. Yes, the lowest 10% earn about $32,000, but the top 10% earn roughly $78,000. A chemistry teacher at a public school in an upscale suburban county can make $150,000 a year or more. And he gets the summer off.