Hello Everyone,

Yesterday, Penny and I attended President Obama’s upbeat speech on the economy (the subject of my next essay) at Northwestern University’s Cahn Auditorium, just eight blocks south of our house.   The night before, I was honored to be one of nine guests at a dinner with the President and our friend, and his close confidant, Valerie Jarrett.

Just ten days before, Penny and I had returned from a trip to Finland.  We went with fifteen University of Chicago students and the leader of a new program there which is helping to address our country’s dire need to professionalize teaching.  We went to learn more about how Finland has attained world prominence for the performance of it schools.

In my mind, these three occasions are serendipitously linked.

As many of you know, Penny is a long-time educational researcher at UChicago, and I now spend the bulk of my time on school improvement, much of it at UChicago’s Urban Education Institute.

Over the last half-dozen years, I have come to realize that professionalizing teaching is central to improving our country’s educational outcomes which now lag much of the world’s.

The President has spoken about how increases in productivity and globalization are the root causes of our newly systemic problem of jobs and income growth.  He believes that we need to educate ourselves out of this hole. I whole heartedly agree. And, in order to do that, we need to make public school teaching a true profession which it cannot now consistently claim to be.

One component of President Obama’s education agenda addresses just that issue.  At this link, www.whitehouse.gov/issues/education/reform scroll down to “Strengthening the Teaching Profession (sic).” (It is unfortunate to see that this is the last item on the agenda; it should be the first.)

Talent or Status?
For me, the core question regarding professionalizing teaching in America is: how do we resolve the chicken or egg conundrum?   Which comes first: talent or status?

As some of you know, Finnish public school teachers have long enjoyed a public regard equal to or higher than that accorded doctors and lawyers.  Unlike in America, when Finnish college students tell their parents they plan to be teachers, the parents never say, “You just want to be a teacher?”

Even so, beginning a half century ago, Finland became much more intentioned about truly professionalizing teaching.  A major step in that direction was to require all teachers to have a research-based masters degree before they begin to practice – much like we demand that doctors and lawyers have graduate degrees in the U.S.

Admission rates to university teacher education programs in Finland are on a par with, and in some cases lower than, programs in medicine and law.  And, the teacher education admission process is far more rigorous than that employed here by any of our colleges, regardless of the field of study.

Three years ago, I helped to conceive of and fund a new “pre-professional” initiative which we named the UChicago Careers in Education Professions program (https://careeradvancement.uchicago.edu/uchicago-careers-in/education-professions). It is part of the University’s eight-program suite of cutting edge career advancement offerings. Simultaneously, I started parallel programs at Amherst (https://www.amherst.edu/campuslife/careers/amherst-careers-in/education) and Grinnell (http://www.grinnell.edu/academics/offices/careers-in-education).

These are small, but crucial, steps to attract more top talent from elite colleges into careers in public school teaching, not just short-term commitments.

I think we all need to encourage our school districts and governments at all levels and our leading colleges and universities to intensify their efforts to raise the standards for teacher preparation just as the President is doing.

Importantly, The University of Chicago has also gotten back into the business of educating teachers with its masters-granting Urban Teacher Education Program.  I hope that President Obama and many of you will encourage more of our best colleges and universities to follow UChicago’s example at the undergraduate and graduate levels. The mere acknowledgement that teaching teachers is a worthy activity for our most elite institutions will, in itself, help to confer status on the field.  That would be another big step toward solving the chicken or egg dilemma.



Our ability to compete economically in a world of relentlessly increasing productivity and global competition will be highly dependent on our ability to highly educate more of our citizens.  We need to truly professionalize teaching to do that.

Please, as always, pass it on.  And, remember that previous Obamagrams are stored on www.obamagrams.com



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