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Warren stopped teaching years ago. But why?

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speaks

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speaks during a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by CNN and The New York Times at Otterbein University on Oct. 15, 2019, in Westerville, Ohio. Credit: AP/John Minchillo

Was Elizabeth Warren forced to step down from her teaching job because she was pregnant?

A new scandal flared over White House hopeful Warren when several media outlets questioned her recent claims that a New Jersey school district let her go in 1971 because she was expecting a child. Warren returned to that theme in a speech on Thursday to the Democratic National Committee's 2019 Women's Leadership Forum in Washington, D.C., where she said she "loved the job" but was told she couldn't continue it while she was pregnant.

But I’ve got a different question: Why was she already planning to exit the profession? Warren hasn’t said, but we can infer the answer: She was too smart for it. And that might be the biggest scandal of all.

To be clear, Warren’s assertions about pregnancy and her job are entirely credible. Yes, as skeptics have noted, her school board issued her a contract to continue teaching while she was pregnant. But Warren says she was hiding her pregnancy, and with good reason: It was still legal to fire women for it. When she became visibly pregnant, she says, her principal told her he was going to hire somebody else.

But the focus on Warren’s pregnancy has diverted our attention from the fact that she intended to leave teaching anyway. Since she didn’t have the requisite college classes in education, she taught for her first year on a so-called emergency certificate. While she was pregnant, she took several classes she would need to become a permanent employee.

And that’s what seems to have caused her to envision a different career. “I went back to graduate school and took a couple of courses in education and said, ‘I don’t think this is going to work out for me,’ ” Warren told an interviewer in 2007.

Friends from high school — where Warren had been a debate champion — told her she should go to law school, and that she would love it. They were right. Enrolling when her daughter was 2 years old, Warren “took to law school like a pig takes to mud,” she said. And the rest, as they say, is history.

So why was Warren turned on by law school, but turned off by ed school? We can only guess at this point, of course, but one thing is clear: ed school is easier. It shouldn’t surprise us that an intellect like Warren wasn’t taken with it.

In a study last year, the National Council on Teacher Quality found that fewer than half of graduate teacher preparation programs required a college grade-point average of 3.0, and less than a third demanded a graduate-level admissions test like the GRE. Too many programs admit anyone who can pay for them, the study reported, instead of screening candidates “rigorously” for their “academic caliber.”Nor are education students likely to encounter many rigorous courses. In a 2011 survey, just 45 percent of undergraduate students in education and social work reported taking a course the previous semester requiring more than 20 pages of writing; for humanities and social science students, the fraction was 68 percent. Education and social work students reported studying just 10.6 hours per week, as compared to 12.4 hours in the humanities and social sciences.

Finally, education classes often reflect a strong political bias that discourages robust intellectual exchange. In a 2004 review of ed-school syllabi, two scholars found that most faculty were “trying to teach a particular ideology . . . without directing their students to any substantial readings that question the educational implications of this view.” That’s a formula for indoctrination, not education, and it leaves real thinkers hungering for more.

Should we be shocked, then, that most teachers come from the lower academic two-thirds of their high school and college cohorts? Or that, according to a 2007 study, American elementary teachers come predominantly from the bottom third?

The sad fact is that Americans simply don’t value teaching enough to attract or retain the strongest candidates for the profession. And that included Warren, who went on to a brilliant career outside of it and is now running for president. The Massachusetts Democrat left her job because she was pregnant, but she left teaching for greener intellectual pastures.  

Score one for the law. And say another prayer for the field of education, which will never really improve until we decide that our smartest people belong there.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of “The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in America,” which will be published next year by Johns Hopkins University Press.