Teaching as a Profession

McKinsey came out with a report last week that looks at educational attainment measures in countries that attract teachers from the top 1/3 of college graduating classes.  Compared to the United States, countries that do better on attainment also do a much more comprehensive and strategic job of cultivating teaching as a profession. The report cites quixotic labor markets, local control politics, and university economics as some of the factors whose confluence leads to this lack of a strategic approach.

I’ve read a bunch of commentary on this report, but Ezra Klein framed the conversation in a somewhat original way:

Now, South Korea, Finland and Singapore all say attracting top students to teaching is the key to their success, and it’s extremely intuitive that attracting better students to teaching will lead to better teachers. In fact, despite the sentence I’m about to write, I believe it myself. But there’s just not much evidence that it’s true.

I’m a big fan of evidence, believe me.  And I’m also a big fan of not conflating causation and correlation.  My wife and I discuss the causation/correlation phenomenon at the dinner table more often than is maritally appropriate.  So I’m sympathetic to Ezra’s desire for evidence.  But what if I were arguing the converse about a different profession:

Now, it’s extremely intuitive of me to say that if we started recruiting brain surgeons from the bottom 1/3 of college graduating classes, the quality of brain surgery would suffer.  But there’s not much evidence that it’s true.

I’d be laughed out of the room.  The general point is that there’s a pervasive American notion that educating children – as a profession – is a less complex enterprise than other valued professions.  Statement’s like Ezra’s exacerbate what I find to be a somewhat pernicious mindset.  This is clearly not what Ezra intended, but I think his statements are indicative of a broader set of societal beliefs about both the complexity and value of teaching.

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