Smith & Dziorny: How Is the Education Workforce Structured? What Are the Pathways to an Ed Career? New Report Has Some Answers

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How is the education workforce organized? How does a motivated, passionate individual pursue a career in education?

Limited guidance exists about entering the education workforce, moving between roles and understanding job responsibilities. This opaqueness is problematic for soon-to-be college graduates considering entering the education sector, school employees who want to pivot their careers and system leaders who want to enable the recruitment and retention of talent.

For example, some high-achieving students pursue careers in consulting or finance because they are recruited through well-defined processes and promised high salaries and status, even when their passion lies elsewhere. Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America, noted, “When a college graduate commits two years to a Fortune 500 training program, it’s clear what the next steps are. But when a college graduate commits to teach at-risk kids for two years, it’s a lot less clear what happens after his or her commitment has been fulfilled.”

In response to this concern, we sought to learn more about education professionals’ career pathways. We developed a survey, shared it with more than 500 educators across the country, then interviewed more than two dozen respondents to hear more about their experiences and what drives them. Ultimately, this work led us to define 10 types of roles held by those working within and alongside the preK-12 and higher education systems: teacher, student supporter, administrator, instructional supporter, capacity builder, researcher, advocate, funder, policymaker and consultant. (To read more about these roles and the perspectives of individuals working in each one, click here.)

As we dug deeper into various education careers, we were struck by the sheer range of pathways that individuals can take within the field. Among our respondents, no two stories were the same. Recent graduates hoping to move into an education career and advance along a steady trajectory will find no clear signposts along the way: no external indicators that a given job will move them closer to their ultimate goals, no manuals telling them how to attain a clear and well-defined next step. Individuals are left to forge their own way and seek out opportunities that align with their interests and passions, based on their own knowledge of the field — and of themselves.

This multiplicity of career paths means it can be difficult to meaningfully compare one job seeker to another. Given the challenge of quantifying and differentiating levels of experience, employers often rely on markers of quality that may have little to do with the requirements of the role or the skills and capabilities of the candidate — for instance, where applicants went to school, how they got connected to the organization and who’s willing to vouch for them. In this way, gaining experience and getting to know others in a field can become part of a self-reinforcing loop in which a candidate is seen as a better fit or more highly qualified because he or she knows the right people and has worked in the right places. The tendency for professional networks to become self-reinforcing perpetuates inequity, particularly racial inequity, as members of privileged groups turn to others they know (and who often bear the same privileged status) to fill open positions.

A great deal of attention has been paid to teacher diversity and representation, and rightly so; teachers are on the front lines of working with students, and evidence from numerous studies indicates the critical importance of a diverse teacher workforce. But little attention has been paid to issues of diversity and representation among those in the broader education workforce, and how this impacts the types of research questions that a think tank poses, the new interventions that are designed by instructional coaches or how a university organizes its student supports.

As a starting point for a more thorough examination of the education workforce, we offer a few questions intended to provoke inquiry and discussion on how employees are identified, vetted and hired:

1. How might education employers seek and identify qualified candidates from nontraditional backgrounds or from outside their professional networks?

2. How might we make it more seamless for education professionals to shift roles across the 10 job categories and across the education continuum (from K-12 to postsecondary institutions)?

3. How might we build more effective bridges between teachers and those working outside the classroom, and allow for greater crossover between the teaching profession and other career paths?

4. How might employers seek to balance the value of formal credentials with that of lived experience when assessing candidates for a role?

5. How might organizations and institutions espouse a commitment to equity throughout their process of identifying and hiring qualified candidates?

Moving toward an education system that supports the success of all learners will require the creativity and dedication of an education workforce with diverse perspectives, skills and experiences. Educational institutions should consider the core capabilities that employees need to thrive in their roles and whether current practices are overly focused on formal qualifications — or informal connections. Although these questions are just a first step, and moving from discussion to action will require courage and openness to change, we hope institutions will accept this challenge. The long-term vitality of our education system — and its ability to offer students the education they deserve — depends on it.

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