Bottom of the Barrel

Plumbing the depths of elite disdain

First off, let’s get this straight: Arne Duncan (Harvard ’87) did not say that the majority of American teachers come from the *bottom of the barrel.* What he actually said was that “In the United States, a significant proportion of new teachers come from the bottom third of their college class”—which is completely different. For one thing, there is no mention of barrels in that statement. So why did so many teachers hear Duncan talking down to them—in the bottom of their barrel? Simple, reader—and by *simple* I am referring to you. You see, the barrel’s bottom is an enormous place, and shooting into it an elite sport as beloved as the hunting of the pheasant. 

You think Bowdoin rhymes with pork loin
Alas Bowdoin does not rhyme with pork loin, dear reader, but with “Snowden.” Which is too bad, because had you attended Bowdoin or another highly selective institution, which, both by definition and long-standing practice, cannot be attended by the vast majority of Americans, you would likely know this and would not reside at the bottom of the barrel. Do you even know where Bowdoin is? I didn’t, and neither did my bottom-of-the-barrel teacher sister. Instead, we made our selection of non-selective schools from a pre-selected list: Northern Illinois University, Southern Illinois University, or Eastern Illinois University. Anyplace but Western Illinois University—that was strictly bottom of the barrel.

You live in Toledo
This is a true story. Last year I attended a Harvard-ish discussion on the failings of public education during which the featured speaker announced that the main obstacle to improving the quality of American teachers was that no one would willingly move to Toledo, Ohio unless they were a *spousal hire.* For those of you who attended non-selective institutions, this translates into an unbelievably snobby statement to the effect that anyone who resides in a locale where an elite would never choose to live (or even visit) can be presumed to be of lesser quality than the elite who has chosen not to live there (or even visit).

You *teach local*
But from whence do the most excellent teachers cometh, reader, if not from Toledo, OH? In fact it is a well-known true fact that the most excellent teachers come from the most selective institutions at which they studied anything but education. Which is why the *cure* for what ails our failed and failing public schools increasingly rests upon parachuting in the barrel’s best and brightest for temporary duty whilst housing them in encampments of excellence. You may be thinking that such a policy is incredibly short sighted and utterly nonsensical as well as steeped in contempt for the parts of the country in which elites choose not to live (or even visit). But what do you know??? 

You have an advanced degree (from a nonselective institution)
Now this one may seem counterintutive (for attendees of non-selective institutions that means contrary to common sense expectations) as advanced degrees have long been used as rungs upon which to climb up from the bottom of the barrel. Except that as policy elites are fond of pointing out, there is no research showing that advanced degrees for teachers lead to higher test scores. Which means that it is perfectly possible for you to hold a master’s degree or, gasp, even a doctorate, AND continue to reside down amidst the barrel’s dregs. Which is why two of our nation’s boldest states, North Carolina and Tennessee, have boldly eliminated extra pay for teachers with advanced degrees as a way of helping teachers at last make their way up the rungs of excellence towards the barrel’s very cream. 

You want to punch Amanda Ripley in the face
Now technically this is an impossible physical act, reader, as there is no arm in the world long enough to reach all the way from your bottom-of-the-barrel depths to anywhere near the proximity of Amanda Ripley’s pixie cut of excellence. In fact the appropriate cream-of-the-crop thing to say should one happen to encounter Ms. Ripley (Cornell ’96) at, say, a cocktail party or in passing at a panel discussion at which you’ve both been invited to speak, is that she has written the most interesting book of this year (or any other year, for that matter), throwing in for good measure a little tidbit about Chad, or Becca or Hermione’s adventure with excellence abroad. 

Yours is not a *short career by choice*
Let’s face it, reader: you are still teaching for a reason. While the most excellent have long ago departed in order to attend law school or to effect policy changes on a larger scale, you are still at it because you lack a *higher* calling. Also teaching is the only thing you ever wanted to do which is still more proof that you do not occupy the barrel’s highest reaches. If you were steeped in selective excellence, you’d almost certainly be doing something besides teaching—by now…

You drink wine out of a box
May I take this opportunity to proclaim the wine box the official beverage of choice at the bottom of the barrel?

Send tips, comments and your stories from the bottom of the barrel to


  1. As someone who grew up about an hour east of the bottom of the barrel (that is, Toledo), I can safely say that my excellent, excellent teachers at my not-the-bottom-not-even-close public school in rural flyover country were generally trained well, cared for students, knowledgeable about their subjects, and patient with questions.

    It amuses me to no end to hear policy elites from the coasts talk of places which they know not the slightest thing about. Nor care about. Because the people who will rise up and ultimately end this reform crapola will be from EVERYWHERE – rural, urban, suburban, Midwest, South, West & East Coasts, Southwest, Plains, you name it.

  2. 1) Re: Duncan and the bottom third: So it’s a little unclear what he means. Does it mean that they come from the bottom third of the incoming college students? Or does it mean that they come from the bottom third of their college graduating classes? Either could be a problem. [Your assessment seems to be that it means going elite colleges, but he never says or implies that in his speech.]

    In the case of the former, we know that a substantial percentage of college freshmen arrive needing some level of remedial classes. Perhaps I’m being an effete snob, but I think it would be a good thing for a potential teacher to be able do college level work when they arrive there. Otherwise, it means that a good teacher = good with kids = good babysitter = let’s pay them crap and treat them like cogs. And yes, my babysitter’s hourly wage probably trumps my own hourly wage.

    In the latter case, it means that the students did not perform particularly well when they were at college, theoretically learning how to be teachers. [Of course, we know that most teachers find teacher prep long on theory, short on anything helpful on day 1]. The other thing is that from what I can tell from my grad school courses at a reputable teacher prep MAT program, and from what I’ve heard from many teachers over the years, college level teaching courses are not exactly the most rigorous. So the person you want to lead children in the classroom can’t hack fairly easy academic work because they are (a) not intellectually capable, (b) not academically prepared, (c) lazy, or (d) taking too much advantage of adult beverages and other college vices. Look, I love teaching because it’s an intellectual challenge and it pains me to watch teachers who clearly don’t understand what they are teaching. I’ve taught with a science teacher who regularly misinformed her students. Aargh! But this also brings us to another point near and dear to my heart. Math. Most elementary teachers feel way more comfortable teaching reading than math. There are a number of reasons for that, but it alarms me that the subset of people who are supposed to get our kids to be able to do math are afraid of it. And, I would gather, the bottom third are a big part of that group.

    If it came down to two candidates with every other characteristic being equal, I would take the one who achieves more at a less selective school than the one who achieves less at the more selective school.

    But in the end, all around, wouldn’t it be better if we were trying to hire the (academic) elite to teach the next generation? No one seems particularly concerned when we make it rigorous to become a doctor or a lawyer or a college professor. Why shouldn’t it be that way with teaching? It would requireW a lot more money…but I bet it would be worth it.

    2) Waste of time Masters’ degrees. C’mon, please. A completely non-scientific study of all the teachers I know show that 90% think that 90% of their Masters degree classes were crap. Most teachers get their degree not to get smarter but to get richer. And it doesn’t even have the networking cachet of B-school. Either we should make the programs useful, or we shouldn’t tie it to increases in pay, because I don’t think it actually moves the bar for whether a teacher actually gets better, and therefore more valuable. Putting a coat of paint on a run-down house will make the exterior shine, but if the foundation is crumbling, the buyer will be SOL. And in this case, the buyer is the kids being educated by the crap teacher. [My assistant principal had a mail order PhD. Useless – him and the piece of paper his degree was printed on – except for in his bank account.] Let’s pay great teachers based on their experience and their results.

    3) Box wine doesn’t hold a candle to 40’s or 12 packs of High Life (preferably bought on a lunch break). Sorry to tell you.

    1. Meaty stuff indeed, math teacher! (And you too Ross). While Duncan didn’t specifically mention the kinds of schools that future teachers attend in this most recent speech, it’s one of his regular *go to* themes and is part of why he’s a huge fan of Teach for America. The overarching claim being made here is that our teachers are dumb and if we just had smarter teachers we would be 1) more competitive globally and 2) we would be able to close the achievement gap. The role that teacher prep programs play is a related sub theme, so I’ll save that for a bit. The problem with the smarter teachers argument is that as commonsense-ish as it sounds, there isn’t any actual research that shows that GPA smarts translates into great teaching–even when we define great teaching simply as the ability to raise test scores. It also ignores that schools and districts and communities have real and important reasons for assembling a teacher force that’s diverse in terms of age, experience, race, class, etc. You can see the contradiction playing out in Boston right now as reform efforts that result in a whiter and *brighter* teaching force undercut the city’s years long efforts to build a teaching corps that looks like its students. My prediction: the *great* teacher shortage will rapidly morph into the great *teacher* shortage thanks to some of the unbelievably nonsensical excellence enhancement policies that are being implemented as I type.
      Re teacher prep programs: what fascinates me is that this argument goes back 100 years. In the successive waves of criticism of the public schools, teacher prep programs have always been a target–and the argument being made today is almost exactly the same as what was being said in 1913! Teacher prep programs are too theoretical, they produce teachers who aren’t ready to teach, they should be more like apprenticeships, etc. There’s another divide here besides elites vs. bottom of the barrel. It’s between those who view teachers as artists vs. mechanics. The holy grail in education reform (and this one is almost always driven by the business community) is a scripted form of teaching that prepares students for the workforce while lowering the cost of teaching. Medical education, by the way, is moving in the opposite direction–becoming more interdisciplinary and more philosophical.The really interesting thing to watch will be how the political pressure on teacher prep programs intersects with their plummeting enrollments.
      As for your choice of bev, to each his own 🙂

      1. I stumbled on this by accident actually and I think I may be a little out of my depth but, here goes. I am in my first year of teaching. I dont teach traditional school subjects though, I am a plumbing instructor at a tech school in South Jersey. I didn’t learn this material at a traditional school but through an apprenticeship in the field and many years in the trade.I have to agree that an apprenticeship for teachers is a great idea. I also think there is alot more to teaching than your degree and institution of higher learning. I had teachers and instructors who were very well educated and some that weren’t,but the teachers I had through my learning years were mostly out of touch and uninteresting. Isn’t being able to relate the material to the student in a way that they can learn it more important than which school they graduated or degree they hold? At the end of the day shouldn’t it be about how to mainstream these students into a working class society? Well not all of the students. We cant all be doctors and lawyers,right? I think somewhere along the line teachers forgot what we are supposed to be in it for. Better brighter future for the children in our care. Right?
        Sorry a little off topic. This is what I was thinking after reading and wanted to share. Thank you for reading.

  3. It’s true that the average student in a MAT or Ed.M. program comes from the bottom third of their graduating class, whether they’re graduating from Eastern Illinois or Dartmouth. Isn’t Arne correct in saying that fact is… bad?

  4. It’s not exactly true, Ross. There is considerable evidence that secondary teachers, especially, do not come from the lower third of the their college classes. Depending on the college, of course. Elementary teachers (the largest subset of the teaching population) tend to be at the low end, however–and because they’re a large segment of K-12 teaching, this tips the balance. It’s not surprising, however, given the typical media-fed view of elementary-school teaching as glorified babysitting.

    EduShyster, we are low-prestige sisters. Here’s my take:

    Be sure to read the comments.

    I totally loved this blog.

  5. If arne and his finance ‘philanthropists’ want to change this fact, you need to pay people. Teachers never had great pay, but they had benefits. If ALEC is ordering for privatization, no job security, and a temp model, academic capable applicants will decline. This seems to be what the corporate reformers want, cheap, inexperienced disposable teachers to fuel their investments in Education inc. I don’t know why Duncan deviates from that plan in his remarks. He’s ‘off-message’ in this regard.

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