Providence, R.I. – The Ivy League has a reputation for sending students on to lucrative careers in law, medicine or on Wall Street. But at Brown University, a growing number of students are choosing teaching instead. The most recent university survey revealed that education was the top field for graduates in the class of 2009, and college officials expect the trend to continue this year.
"I feel like people usually think of teaching as like you're teaching the students but they teach you so much more, which is really cool," says Christian Martell, a new graduate who is one of nearly 40 Brown students joining Teach for America. The national program puts college graduates in urban schools while they work toward a teaching credential. 192 Brown students applied this year, roughly 13 percent of the class of 2010. Martell says many of her friends are impressed that she got into the program.
"Oh, teach for America, only so many people get selected," Martell says. "So it somehow has this prestige around it."
And professors say that prestige is attracting students not only to Teach for America, but to other teaching programs as well.
"As Teach for America's status has grown a little bit more elite, people see teaching not only as an option but as an elite option, " says Maureen Sigler, director of History and Social Studies education for Brown's Masters in Teaching program, which had a 45 percent increase in applications this year. Sigler believes more interest in teaching at Brown makes sense because the university places a strong emphasis on public service.
"It's the private university with a public mission," Sigler explains. "They come to Brown wanting to give back when they leave, and they see teaching as one of those ways to give back."
At a conference at Brown last month, Urban Education Policy students discussed challenges like the achievement gap and how to improve schools. Master's candidate Sade Bonilla advocated for using data to drive reforms.
"There have become these institutionalized practices within schools where people just get used to passing the buck," Bonilla told the audience. "We have to create a culture of change and a different mentality about what our outcomes should be, and data can help us identify areas where we can direct people and time and resources."
For Bonilla the challenges in education are a compelling reason to stay in the field, not leave it. She describes education as the most pressing civil rights issue of her day.
" No Child Left Behind just sort of opened people's eyes to the marginalization and the different educational opportunities that were afforded to different student groups," she says. "When you have that data available and you see the disparities in educational experiences its very hard to ignore."
But Bonilla doesn't plan to be a teacher. Instead, she's going to crunch numbers for an education-related non-profit to help evaluate its programs. Bonilla represents another part of the trend according to Kenneth Wong, chair of the Brown Education Department
"Education is no longer just k-12 public schools," says Wong. "Education now is primed for more innovative ideas and more data use, more evaluation and more team work. And so in other words its not just somebody who is good at pedagogy. We need someone who is good in using the data to inform practice, to assess what works, what doesn't work and then also to communicate with the parents."
Many school districts across the country are struggling with funding cuts, making this a tough job market for new teachers. But here at Brown, many students are finding jobs. Half of the graduates of the Masters in Teaching program have already landed positions, which professors say is higher than usual for this time of year. Teach for America students like Christian Martell are guaranteed a teaching post in the fall, but Martell says teaching still isn't exactly what her father hoped she would do.
" It was either medicine, law or business," she says. "And I'm just like nope, nope, nope, nope. So he's just really pushing the law school thing just because I argue with him a lot, so he thinks I would be a good lawyer."
Martell hasn't ruled out law school after she completes two years with Teach for America, and she says that's a common trajectory for many Brown grads. That's also been a source of criticism from many teachers unions, who say elite graduates now view teaching as a two-year stopover on their way to a more illustrious career. But Professors at Brown say the more people who experience what's happening in schools today, the better.
"They may not all stay in teaching but the vast majority of them do," says Brown Professor Laura Snyder of her students in the Master's in Teaching Program. "Those that are not teachers stay in education and they're contributing in other ways as leaders, curriculum developers and potentially policy makers in the research realm."
All of this is valuable, according to Snyder, "to be able to effectively provide not just equal educational opportunities to kids but to have the achievement gap closer to being closed."