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Poise & Ivy: Judging Teachers by their Credentials

Reading about the celebration--real-life and editorial--around Twenty Years of Teach for America, the Power and the Glory, I had a personal epiphany: I myself am wholly inadequate in the prestige department.

I got my bachelors degree at No-Name Regional University (the only school that gave me full-ticket scholarship help, something a first-generation college attendee values over all other qualities). I taught school for 30 years. It wasn't until I was admitted into one of the nation's top Ed Policy schools for doctoral work that I experienced the omnipresent jostling and unwritten rules for academic status.

At orientation, Big U told us how "select" we were--a novelty for me, but not, evidently, for the other students in my cohort, fresh off internships in public policy, master's degrees from Universities Everyone Knows, or stints with Teach for America. (Big U actively recruited Teach for America alums with full fellowships, and rejoiced as each prospect was snagged.)

This was the first time I understood that professors--and students who were already hip to the game-- judged research reports, journal articles and opinion pieces by their authors and university, without actually reading them. In-class discussions were filled with name-dropping and speculation based on somebody else's "data," rather than personal experience. Even in the informal and supposedly democratic world of blogs, this kind of credentialing seems to matter, a lot--including blogs that are not much more than whining.

Ed Policy School is not an easy place to be a veteran teacher. One young doctoral colleague remarked that he failed to see how any sentient person could be a teacher for 30 years. Another student in my department told me that her (small, celebrated) undergraduate college was "not the kind of college that had an education department."

What kinds of colleges do have undergraduate education programs? Not our kind, dear. This is certainly what lies under resentment of Teach for America. It's not about ed schools' intransigence in keeping weak, cash-cow programs going, or low-performing districts' refusal to acknowledge that we desperately need bright, committed young teachers, and now.

It's the idea that no sentient person would prepare for or commit to a career in teaching. Distinction is how we order and make sense of our world. If our most esteemed universities devalue education as a scholarly discipline or life choice--isn't that somewhere between irony and lunacy?

How does this play out in American public schools, where the intellectual proletariat dominates the profession of teaching? In Schoolteacher, Dan Lortie notes that for several decades, teaching represented the career of choice for first-generation college graduates seeking to move into the middle class: "Teaching has attracted many person who have undergone the uncertainties and deprivations of lower- and working-class life. It has provided a significant step up the social class ladder for many Americans."

Conversely, William Deresiewicz, in The Disadvantages of an Elite Education (in The American Scholar), pokes at prestigious IHEs, suggesting that elite universities "teach students to believe that people who didn't go to an Ivy League or equivalent school weren't worth talking to, regardless of their class" and "inculcate a false sense of self-worth." His main argument: those attending select colleges are authority- pleasers, gathering credentials, measuring personal value through standardized rankings, winning competitions and admission into a perceived club of meritocracy--rather than pursuing genuine scholarship.

Up by our bootstraps or riding on classist coattails? I do believe that smart, capable people turn up everywhere in the teaching profession, regardless of where they took their degrees or why they decided to teach.

Alma Mater is not Destiny.

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The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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