12/11/2013 04:12 pm ET Updated Feb 10, 2014

The Teaching Profession: Then and Now

Back in the early 1970s, I was invited to give a keynote speech at a National Science Teachers Association meeting. I was thrilled to meet Bill Aldridge, then president of the NSTA, who said to me, "Vicki, the women's movement is ruining education." What he meant was that, up to this point, teaching was the profession of choice (along with nursing) for bright women. And now that the women's movement was creating more opportunities for women to become doctors or lawyers, there was a brain drain away from teaching.

For those of you who are too young to remember what those days were like, allow me to explain. I started my career as a teacher in the early '60s. I was 22 years old, married, and armed with a Master's degree in high school biology, chemistry and physics instruction. Yet, I had a hard time finding a teaching position. I had no experience, except for student teaching. I had to be paid a higher starting salary because I had an advanced degree. And I was married, which implied that I would get pregnant and create problems for them to replace me. I was asked at interviews what my intentions were for starting a family (now against the law). I was ultimately hired by an unmarried, careerist, public school, female principal to teach 7th and 8th grade science. She put her arm around me and said, "I think you have great potential as a teacher. Whatever time you give us, I'm grateful for." I gave them 2 ½ years and was forced to quit in my sixth month of pregnancy because I "showed."

Make no mistake. I LOVED teaching. The department chair handed me a textbook to teach from. I took one look at it, and decided I couldn't inflict such dry, pedantic stuff on my students. I also noticed that my classroom door was closed and no one was watching me. So I went to the library and found exciting books on the same subjects I was required to teach. I used them to create my own materials. Perhaps I was an outlier. One day, when Mr. Dinsmore, the militant, scowling assistant principal unexpectedly walked into my classroom to observe me, my students and I were in the middle of deriving the equation for the Doppler Effect (in 8th grade!). They knew I was being evaluated and rose to the occasion. Every hand went up. Every kid was in lock step with me. They broke into applause when he left after about five minutes! We knew we had showed him! That spring, my students took the assessment tests (after about three days of test prep); they did just fine.

Today's public school teachers are not trusted with the kind of autonomy I had. They are burdened with paperwork and have all kinds of rubrics to worry about both for themselves and for their students. A friend of mine, who is a professor in a CUNY school of education, tells me that teachers in public schools advise her students NOT to become teachers.

The good news about the CCSS is that it is refocusing attention on education, to the point where there is a grassroots movement against them, spearheaded by Diane Ravitch. Education has made some progress since I left the classroom (but not the profession; I'm still a teacher at heart.) We now have a lot more resources and knowledge for teaching children with special needs. Technology and the availability of information are having an impact. When we look at Finland, which is successfully creating a knowledge-based economy, the teaching profession is the profession of choice for bright people. Each school faculty operates as a team to do whatever it takes to get students to learn. If you are not aware of how this works read this article from the Smithsonian Magazine and this recent piece in the Providence Journal. Finnish schools trust their teachers and give them the support they need to do their job. Contrast this with the current undermining of teachers and blaming them for what appears to be the poor quality of American education. (In her book Reign of Error, Diane Ravitch maintains that American education is not so terrible, in fact it does pretty well considering all the misguided policies we're fooling around with, not that we can't do a lot better.)

Two years ago I interviewed Finnish Professor Jorma Routti, one of the founders of Finnish venture capital and one of Europe's leading technology experts. "Education cannot be rushed," Professor Routti told me. "There are no short cuts, no magic bullets. It's a law of nature. It takes nine months to make a baby and 30 years to make an engineer."