Why Isn't Harvard Training More Teachers?

Students are attracted to Teach for America, but it's hard to fight the perception that education programs are "beneath the dignity of an Ivy League school."
The Atlantic

About one in five Harvard seniors applies to Teach for America. However, only a "minuscule" percentage of the class actually studies education, according to Harvard Graduate School of Education Dean James Ryan.

What accounts for this difference? Why are so many of America's brightest students apparently interested in teaching but not availing themselves of the training their school has to offer?

Part of what's to blame is a long-standing institutional snobbery toward teaching. As Walter Isaacson put it at this year's Washington Ideas Forum, there's a perception that "it's beneath the dignity of an Ivy League school to train teachers."

Teach for America has helped change that perception. "I think TFA has done a lot in terms of elevating the profession of teaching and elevating the importance of public education and education generally," said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, in conversation with Isaacson, CEO of The Aspen Institute, and Ryan.

But Harvard and other schools like it haven't made it a priority to encourage students to pursue teaching—and so students are looking for opportunities elsewhere. As Ryan put it, "There's a tremendous demand for teacher training—and the main outlet is TFA."

Ryan, who was installed as dean less than three months ago, says one of his goals is to train more Harvard students to become teachers. He hopes that eventually between five and 10 percent of the class will go through the undergraduate teaching program.

"There's an opportunity to capitalize on interest from students who could do anything and who want to go into teaching," said Ryan.

Not all top schools are taking Harvard's approach, though. Cornell University (Weingarten's alma mater) recently stopped offering undergraduate teacher-training. 

"We say education is really important, but here you have the land grant institution of New York State that has eliminated teacher-training programs," said Weingarten. "If we don't actually have real preparation like Finland and Singapore do that really teaches teachers how to teach ... then what are we doing?"

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Eleanor Barkhorn is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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