Laura Ofobike

Teaching is a noble profession. What teachers do matters because they help shape the future. Political figures make speeches to that effect all the time. By that, they mean teachers are foot soldiers in the arduous (and too often thankless) job of bringing out the potential in generations of children.

As teachers head back to classrooms for a new school year, they face the myriad uncertainties of a transitional time. Many believe they are under siege and underappreciated. Their numbers are dwindling, too. In the past couple of years, an estimated 150,000 teachers nationwide have lost their jobs, casualties of deep budget cuts. Federal and state governments are pushing reforms that challenge nearly everything that has defined the profession for decades: training and certification standards; work schedules; salary, pension and benefits packages; seniority and tenure; evaluation and promotion systems.

Reformers say the upheaval occurring in the profession now should result in a higher grade of teachers in every classroom, teachers who are better trained to tease out the natural curiosity in every student and inspire learning of the sort that can be measured by achievement tests. To put it another way, a key goal of the political engineering is to grow smarter teachers for a smart new world in which our young ones can scream, “We’re Number One,” and have the evidence to back it up.

McKinsey and Co., the international consulting firm, conducted a study two years ago in which the researchers sought to understand how Singapore, Finland and South Korea manage to attract top-tier students into teaching and turn out world-class students. The study, “Closing the Talent Gap: Attracting and retaining top-third graduates to careers in teaching” said in so many words that if you want accomplished, effective teachers, you begin first by making teaching an irresistible career option for your best and brightest, the top third, of college students.

The study found that these top-performing three recruit 100 percent of their new teachers from this group. The U.S., on the other hand, recruits a mere 23 percent of the best students into teaching. In high-poverty districts, the figure is 14 percent. About 50 percent of new teachers in the U.S. are drawn from the bottom third of the college class. (Teachers do find the inference insulting that collectively they are not regarded as the cream of the academic crop.)

But the point to hold on to from the McKinsey study, and others that have made similar observations, is that while the top-performing nations have made it a national priority to draw their best young talent into teaching careers, we here have not figured a way to give teaching the prestige that commands the attention of the best students.

It isn’t as if we are unfamiliar with how the market for talent works. For instance, colleges of business, law schools and medical schools have taken turns being magnets for high-achieving students in recent decades. Students have flocked where the compensation is good, where admission is selective, and opportunities for advancement are wide open and where the price of retention is to show results year in and year out.

The top-performing countries have made teaching a prestigious profession. Among other things, entry into teacher training programs is highly selective. Some countries pay the tuition and fees and a salary or stipend while students are in training. Evaluations are rigorous, and teacher compensation is very competitive with other professions.

The study notes the huge disparity in compensation that has opened up in the U.S. since the 1970s between teaching and other professions. Example: The salary differential in 1970 between a starting teacher in public education in New York City and a starting lawyer in a prestigious firm was $2,000. By 2010, the entry-level lawyer was making $160,000 in salary and benefits. The entry-level teacher? $45,000. Compensation is only one of many factors in growing high-caliber teachers, to be sure — but try arguing prestige with that kind of differential. Soldiering in the trenches is noble work, yes, but hardly glamorous or prestigious.

Ofobike is the Beacon Journal chief editorial writer. She can be reached at 330-996-3513 or by email at lofobike@thebeaconjournal.com