Feb 7, 2011

Food for Thought

I was talking with someone yesterday who became a teacher in the mid-1960s and has been one ever since (and a brilliant one at that - she was my kindergarten and first grade teacher). She said that she thinks one of the things that happened to public education in the last half-century is that, after the women's movement helped open doors to a wide range of careers for women, our schools lost a lot of their best teachers and would-be teachers. Because teaching had been one of the only careers easily available to college-educated women, many of the smartest and most ambitious women from the pre-1960s generations became educators. After the women's movement, though, many of those women turned to other careers, not least because they saw teaching as one of the old-school "women's jobs" that were symptoms of a more sexist age.

I'm not sure what I think of this hypothesis, so I'm throwing it out there. Do you think that a broadening of women's career options was one of the many reasons the quality of public education declined in the past 40-ish years?


  1. I'm not actually convinced public education has declined in the past half-century. (I think the ability of workers without HS or post-HS education to find good jobs has declined -- so we need schools to do more with more kids than they used to do.) But I do think that the disappearance of the artificial subsidy for public education caused by discrimination in other fields -- discrimination against women and, especially apropos in inner cities, against African-Americans -- has caused a decline in the median academic background of teachers. As a field, public education is only now starting (thanks, Michele Rhee) to grapple with the world of human capital it actually inhabits, as opposed to that of 50 years ago.

  2. Funny that you picked up on the decline issue - I thought about putting a caveat into that sentence but frankly don't know enough about how people measure such things, so I decided to just leave it. In optimistic moments, I also think that we assume public education has declined but that ignores the fact that 50 years ago lots of kids (southern blacks, for instance) got terrible educations but white Americans just didn't notice, and now we actually notice and care.

  3. In 1900, 57% of Atlanta University (WEB DuBois's institution) graduates were teachers.