The teaching crisis that unions and school districts won't address

A major stakeholder not at the UTLA-LAUSD negotiating table: recent college grads who want to become teachers

Los Angeles teachers and school district administrators are doing battle once again. Contract talks broke down last month after 18 rounds of negotiations on raises, healthcare costs, class size, employee evaluation and charter schools. Mediation begins next week. Strike language and recriminations grow louder.

Given the potential long-term impact of any settlement, it is a shame that a major stakeholder can't be at the negotiating table. Namely, college graduates considering whether to pursue a teaching career.

Rocio Garcia, 24, is one such person. She struggled in a Southeast Los Angeles high school known for its dropout rate and overcrowding, but surrounded herself with educators who recognized her academic potential. Guided by caring mentors, Garcia graduated with high honors, was named a finalist for the prestigious Gates Millennium scholarship, and was accepted to a top liberal arts college in Connecticut.

Shaped by these experiences, Garcia felt called to teaching. She made plans to return to Los Angeles after graduation and work in the city's most difficult schools. But after several classroom internship experiences, she is troubled.

“I feel a tug-of-war,” she said recently. “My background and education prepared me to be the kind of teacher who listens to students, hears their ideas and helps them become critical thinkers. But I keep meeting teachers who feel overwhelmed, have to follow a script and do so much testing. I don't even know if they are really teaching.”

Recent data suggest that detached teachers may be shortchanging our students. Lamenting “America's systemic shortage of inspiring teachers,” a 2015 Gallup poll shows that only 31% of K-12 public school teachers are engaged in their work.

Survey responses point toward a contradiction that may be keeping our best college students from considering the teaching profession. Historically, teachers are happier than other professionals. Teaching ranks high on measures that gauge an employee's sense of purpose and social impact. Like Garcia, many respondents view teaching as their calling. But this powerful incentive to join a field dedicated to public service is increasingly offset by other concerns.

Asked, for example, whether their “opinions seem to count” in the workplace, teachers ranked dead last among surveyed professions. Asked whether supervisors create a workplace that is “open and trusting,” teachers gave their field similarly low marks.

High-stakes testing hasn't helped matters. Polling shows that 3 out of 4 teachers agree that continuous test-based monitoring of students takes too much classroom time away from actual teaching. Nearly 9 in 10 respondents feel that linking teacher evaluations to students' test scores is “unfair.”

Career-minded college students are not oblivious to these developments. Since 2008, enrollment in teacher education programs in California is down 53%, and other bellwether states report a similar trend. Nationally, U.S. Department of Education statistics that include both traditional and alternative preparatory programs show that there were nearly 90,000 fewer teachers in training in 2012 than in 2008. Teach for America, which once celebrated 15 consecutive years of expansion, peaked in 2013. It is witnessing as much as a 25% drop in applications this year. Meanwhile, critics continually point toward a profession that draws disproportionately from the bottom third of all college graduates and fails to attract enough minorities.

To reverse these trends we need competitive salaries, benefits and better working conditions for teachers. But the profession is facing an identity crisis that goes much deeper. Neither union officials nor district administrators appear to be addressing this problem.

Our most promising educators crave work that honors their creativity and intellect. They are suspicious of easy answers. They need to hear more than the cliche that a great teacher can make a difference in a student's life. They want to know whether this profession will make a difference in their own life.

For Rocio Garcia, teaching still represents a near-magical opportunity to do what she does best: read, write, think, collaborate and create. She wants to be challenged. She aspires to a classroom where students ask big questions, use imagination and think critically. Such ambition gives voice to what teaching could be. And those considering this work need to hear its call.

Stephen Mucher directs Bard College's master of arts in teaching program in Los Angeles.

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