Should PhDs Teach in Public Schools?

From The Atlantic:

American universities award more than 60,000 doctoral degrees every year. However, there are not enough academic jobs for all those graduates. One study asserts that only 41 percent of Ph.D.s will find tenure-track positions. Some studies are slightly more optimistic.  In a report for the academic journal PS, Jennifer Seagal Diascro reported that 49 percent of the 816 Ph.D.s who graduated from political science programs between 2009 and 2010 found permanent academic positions.

As universities increase the number of adjunct and non-tenure track lines at the expense of tenure positions, the number of Ph.D.s without permanent positions is unlikely to change….

And what about the rest of the graduates, the ones who didn’t make the tenure track? Savage found that 80 percent of recent graduates had stable, full-time positions, even if they were not working as professors. He said that many graduates later found work as administrators within the CUNY system. Some found jobs in research fields, thanks to the quantitative skills gained in graduate school. Others were writers, librarians, and social workers. One is now a Buddhist monk.

Of the 471 Ph.D.s that Savage tracked, though, only two were employed as teachers in private or public schools. It’s surprising that so few scholars are transitioning to K-12 education when unable to find work within academia. Nation-wide, fewer than one percent of all public elementary and secondary school teachers have Ph.Ds.

Why isn’t public-school teaching a viable Plan B for Ph.D.s?

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Levi

    It’s absurd, but K-12 teacher certification requirements in my state are onerous. In the eyes of the state, someone might be perfectly qualified to teach a college freshman but not a high school senior. Even with a relevant PhD in hand, up to two years’ worth of additional education courses are often required.

    The political argument made is that despite the obvious subject matter mastery, a doctorate is not considered adequate training for child psychology, classroom management, etc. In practice, teachers’ unions have lobbied heavily to erect high barriers to entry to the teaching profession for their own benefit. Your state might be different, but that’s mine.

  • sanctusivo

    And having advanced degrees affect the starting pay; many school districts pass on well-trained teachers because the districts would expect to pay them more than one right out of college. It’s a Catch-22.

  • Terry Clees

    Exactly! I can teach college, but am not qualified to teach K-12, except as a low paid substitute. :-(

  • Andrew Dragos

    I’ve always wondered this. My only hesitation is that I know plenty of PhDs who are simply not qualified to teach in public schools K-12 or even in universities/semiaries! Scholars don’t necessarily make good teachers, and you can get through a PhD without having the slightest clue about education.

  • D. Foster

    That’s the answer right there. In Georgia, you have to be certified by the state to teach, which is a completely independent certification from normal higher education. You have to take classes on state standards and how to teach in light of the approved curriculum.

    For example, I have an English degree. But I do not have an English EDUCATION degree, which is a different track that gets you certified through the state. Therefore, I cannot teach English in the GA public school system. Stephen Hawking could not teach science in the GA public school system for the same reason.

    And it is a long, laborious process to become certified if you don’t do so in college. You have to get hired by a school that agrees to sponsor you, then go through two years of night classes on top of your full-time job teaching–classes which are not always offered, by the way.

    So in GA, at least, Ph.Ds aren’t certified by the state to teach and therefore can’t teach. I’m not an expert in this field, but I suspect this is the issue nationwide for why they’re not moving into the public school system.

  • Phil Miller

    Why isn’t public-school teaching a viable Plan B for Ph.D.s?

    Most of the PhDs I know would never consider it, to be honest. Many of them would consider it beneath them. Also, in the science fields, I think the prospect of having to teach through the same lesson plan year after year sounds like a death sentence to PhDs.

  • Jeremy B.

    This is the deal in my home district. My teacher friends have always advised to get hired THEN pursue your post-grad. If you have a post-grad or are even working on one before then, you WILL be passed over.

  • hawleyla

    Speaking as a public school teacher, I think there is a world of difference between teaching college students, who want to be there, for the most part, and teaching K-12 students, who have to be there by law. Part of what the education classes teach you is how to work with those unmotivated students.

    Also, people with a Ph.D. would never be able to pay off their degrees on a public school teacher’s salary.

  • Marta L.

    I’m transitioning out of a doctoral program (philosophy) sans degree, but with several years teaching experience under my belt. I know how to manage a course at that level, but am not sure I’d be qualified to do it at K-12, even high school. I’m used to giving a degree of autonomy that I don’t know kids are ready for at that age. It’s a shame, because I actually have more experience managing a classroom than most graduates of education colleges – there should be a way to do certification while teaching, or to do a mentoring process instead. But things don’t seem set up that way at this point. It’s not that Ph.D’s think they’re too good for K-12, or at least not just that.

  • Janet

    Speaking as someone who has had an extremely varied career, and is now teaching in el ed, it is my observation that to be a skilled teacher in the K-8 area where i am takes a heck of a lot more than being an expert in a particular subject area. I have an m.a. in couseling and still find having to motivate and skillfully manage 20+ kiddos in the classroom each day a very draining experience. I continue to do it because i love kids. Also, I for was certified in el ed after i got my B.A. in business, if you have a PhD those courses shld b relatively easy for you, and therefore not “arduous.” Also, and no offense to those of you with PhDs who r really good teachers, many experts with PhDs do not make good teachers.

  • RJS4DQ

    I find this interesting. Of the Ph.D. students I’ve graduated one is currently teaching at a private high school. As I hear he does an excellent job and the school can use him as an example of the high quality of their faculty.

    But I agree with the commenters who note that requiring training in teaching is not unreasonable. In fact, it seems entirely appropriate. It takes a different set of skills to control a 9-12 classroom (I don’t think a Ph.D. would add much value below this level, except perhaps a degree in psychology or education).

  • Janet

    Phil, I respect your opinion. However, even at the el ed level, if you are teaching the same lessons year after year, even using the same curriculum, you are not a very good teacher. There’s tons of things you can do to be creative and engaging to and for students.


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