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Why is policing more alluring than teaching?

Posted by Feb 2nd, 2011.

Holly Yettick is a doctoral student in the Educational Foundations, Policy and Practice program at the School of Education at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

An offhand comment by an education professor at a diverse, urban university got me thinking about minority teacher recruitment. As he strolled past the department of criminal justice and criminology, this professor often noticed that the students he saw were very diverse—much more so, in fact, than those who had selected his teacher preparation program. Given the often troubled, violent and repressive relationships between law enforcement and minorities, he marveled that more minority students appeared to be choosing policing over teaching.

My knowledge of law enforcement comes largely from the Wire, Law and Order and NYPD Blue. So I had no idea whether his observation was based on an isolated anecdote or symbolic of a broader trend.

It turns out that, according to National Center for Education Statistics data, in 2008, American colleges and universities granted whites 25,359 bachelor’s degrees in “security and protective services” (the category that most closely matched criminal justice). Whites earned more than three times as many degrees (86,545) in education.  By contrast, blacks actually earned 15 percent FEWER degrees in education (6,595) than in security and protective services (7,599). Hispanics earned only slightly more education degrees (3 percent or 5,436) than security and protective services degrees (5,269).

This comparison, is of course, very problematic not in the least because teachers often do not or cannot (as in Colorado) major in education. Also, the “security and protective services” category likely only partially matches up with the criminology major, which could also be classified under, say, social sciences. More importantly, according to the US Department of Justice, virtually no US police departments require a bachelor’s degree.

That said, it does appear that the professor’s casual observation contained a seed of truth. Between 1987 and 2007, the percentage of minority police officers increased from 14.6 percent to 25 percent or about 10 percentage points.  Writing in The Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology in 2006, University of California, Berkeley law professor David Alan Sklansky referred to the “dramatic shift in the demographics of police departments,” adding that:

“Today’s Los Angeles Police Department is not the homogeneous workplace celebrated on Dragnet—and neither is the police force of any other large American city.”

In the education realm, 17 percent of K-12 public school teachers were minorities in 2007-08, up just 4.5 percentage points since 1987-88. In contrast to the steady rise in minority police hiring, minority teacher hiring flatlined in the 80s and 90s. Mwangaza Michael-Bandele bemoaned in a 1993 ERIC Clearninghouse report the  “simultaneous decline in the number of African American, Hispanic, Asian and Native American teachers and increase in the number of students among these same groups of people.”

Why is this occurring? Considering my limited knowledge, I can only guess at why law enforcement is attracting greater percentages of minorities. (Discrimination-related lawsuits? The CSI effect?) Nor would I want to suggest that teaching and policing are equivalent or that they should be. (Patrol officers, after all, make more money, with median salaries of $51,410 vs. $47,100-$51,180 for K-12 teachers!) Finally, despite the successes with minority hiring, law enforcement continues to experience ongoing and well-publicized instances of racial profiling and discrimination, making it in many ways a less-than-desirable role model for schools.

This issue hits home for me. My baby brother is a biracial kid on an almost all white college campus. He is a good student and a principled person.  I worry that he could be erroneously singled out by the cops because of the color of his skin.

Those caveats and concerns about law enforcement aside, when it comes to schools, our population is growing more diverse at a faster rate than our communities as a whole. About a fourth of our nation’s kindergartners are now Hispanic and “minorities” are expected to become the majority among children in the next decade and a half.

What message are we sending if the teaching force remains 80 percent white? Can we wonder that some of those with a bent for public sector jobs may be choosing policing over teaching? Additionally, achievement indicators appear to be at the very least associated with pairing minority teachers with minority students. (See, for instance, “Minority Teachers, Minority Students, and College Matriculation: A New Look at the role-modeling Hypothesis” by Rick Hess and David Leal, 1997,  Policy Studies Journal.)

How can the teaching profession attract more minority teachers? Maybe it’s time for educators to play detective.

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5 Responses to “Why is policing more alluring than teaching?”

  1. paul teske says:

    Interesting thoughts, Holly – thanks.

    While I’m far from an expert, my own School of Public Affairs has both BA and MCJ programs in criminal justice. Many, perhaps even the majority, of those graduates are not police officers – there are many other career opportunities for them, in courts, parole systems, corrections, social agencies that deal with re-entry, etc. The field has grown much wider and, in addition to large numbers of minority students, I see growing numbers of women in this more traditionally male field.

    I’m not sure what all acccounts for the large number of minority students in this field, compared to teaching, but it is an important point, and may be party explained by the wider range of opportunities over time.

  2. Joesph Debunque says:

    When comparing Teacher’s salareis to Police (or any other profession) don’t forget to take into account the number of days worked. Our teachers are contracted for 180 days/ year, vs the 250 days/year for most police officers (50 weeks * 5 days). Dividing, you find that the the Police Office makes $205 a day (51,410/250) vs the Teacher at $261/day (47,100/180). Fact is, Teaching is a very well paid part-time job with full benefits

  3. Mark Sass says:

    Joseph, when the officer punches the clock at the end of her shift she is done working. Not true for most teachers. I’d say, on average, a teacher works 50 hours a week. Now do the math per hour versus per day. What a 50 week a year officer (2 weeks for vacation) puts in a teacher puts in in an average school year. 40 hours a week for 50 weeks for the officer (2000 hours) versus 50 hours a week for 40 weeks for the teacher (2000 hours).

  4. Michael Pettersch says:

    I have been thinking about this issue for quite some time, but in a slightly different context. I have been pondering, “Why is ______(insert public or private sector employment opportunities) more alluring than teaching.” I grew up in a family of teachers, my spouse is a teacher, and I am one of those teachers who genuinely looks forward to waking up every day and going to school. To me teaching is a noble profession. So, how do we recruit the “best and brightest?” I also know that we are facing an impending shortage skilled and qualified teachers, especially in math, science, and special education, what are the barriers to getting a top quality educator in every classroom?

    I am looking to add to my list, but this is what I have come up with:

    -The notion that somehow teaching is somehow a “part-time” job. I will concede that there are teachers who work extremely hard, and those that become stagnant and need to be counseled out of the profession. Given that, I have worked with over 15 new and aspiring teachers in different capacities. All of them, literally every single one of them, has been SHOCKED by how much work the profession involves. And most of these people are not straight out of college, they are mid-career professionals with experience in medicine, law, construction, food service, etc. They are often overwhelmed and need support systems to help them through the initial training. So, we have teachers who make great personal and family sacrifices, try to help others, and make themselves available to students and their families, only to have their profession labeled as “part-time,” in the same manner that a “summer job”. Not exactly the best recruiting tool for a profession.

    -Opportunity for advancement. School leadership is very different from school management. In the coming decade, instructional leadership will need to become the highest priority for school systems. In general, we have very poor systems for allowing teachers to become great mentors and role models, and even worse pathways for administrators to become truly great leaders. With some certainty I can say that in every school in the Denver metro area, there are extraordinary teachers who would never think of broadening their impact by joining school a school leadership team. Some truly love the classroom and would never think of leaving “their kids.” But many others look at the often crushing hours, uncertainty, restraining rules, having to evaluate sometimes upwards of 30 teachers/support staff, and simply say “no thanks.” This I believe hurts the profession in general.

    -Lastly, I believe, the very nature of the education debate often turns people off to the profession. We, myself included, often tend to characterize education as a modern movie: There has to be a bad guy, a good guy, someone who is saved, possibly some romance… Take for instance Michelle Rhee. Some paint her as the savior of American schooling, some a force for evil. This atmosphere, to me, is very destructive when we want to bring people into the profession. People on the outside look at this and say, “why would I want to join that?!” Rather, we should look at education as a work in progress, a mission if you will, that will have ups and downs, but in the end is about changing the trajectory for our students and our nation. That to me is something worth joining!

  5. Elisa Cohen says:

    Food for thought: my neighborhood school has a graduation rate of about 63% according to the data being released today. Probation has a success rate of about 68.9% according to a report issued in October 2010.

    While I have no problem marching into my neighborhood school’s governance committee and demanding educational equity at the school, I have watched silently as a young man I know has had an incredibly ineffective probation officer collecting her paycheck without any discernible effort. It doesn’t feel safe to speak up. There is no monthly board meeting where those who have been caught up in the “catch 22′s” of the system can present public testimony to elected officials. As our criminal justice budget continues to swell, maybe it’s time to create county level Board of Penal Justice to represent the citizens. Could it be that it is more appealing to work in a system that lacks the same scrutiny of public education?

    I don’t know of any popular Penitentiary News website dedicated to focusing a spotlight on this system.

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