Rhena Jasey is a Harvard graduate, teacher and star of "American Teacher," a 2011 documentary focused on the salaries and lifestyles of U.S. teachers. "I think if we could find a way to get our top universities to really invest in education as a major, education training as a career path, as an option for some of our top graduates we’d have more," she said. (Photo credit: The Teacher Salary Project)

WASHINGTON — Rhena Jasey quickly put herself on track to become a doctor after she entered Harvard. She loved children, but didn’t see a major that fit her passion. So pre-med it was – until she returned home for her first school break, disillusioned.

“My parents said, ‘Oh, so do you want to be a doctor?’ and I said, ‘absolutely not.’” Despite her interest in math and science, Jasey realized she did not want to be a pediatrician. She graduated in 2001 with a psychology degree, after Harvard denied the children’s studies major she designed and pitched along with nine fellow students.

Jasey now teaches middle school at the Equity Project Charter School in New York City, which focuses on attracting “master teachers,” in part by offering $125,000 salaries. She was one of eight educators selected of more than 600 applicants – an accomplishment, she said, that owed little to her undergraduate education at Harvard.

She did not fully realize she wanted to be a teacher until after she left Harvard, she said. “It was, here are your options: investment banking, consulting, pre-med, law, business school.”

Only three of the top 20 universities in America offer an undergraduate major in education. Neither Harvard nor any school that U.S. News & World Report ranks in its top 10 is one of them – and this leads some students to say they feel under-supported in the choice to teach.

“If Harvard really wanted to invest in the education of classroom teachers, then they would. They would have the programs,” Jasey said.

Matty Valvano, a high school teacher in Howard County, Maryland, and 2006 graduate of Princeton, seconded Jasey. “You can’t major in education. You can’t major in teacher preparation… I think that right there demonstrates a bit of either ignorance or denial – or maybe it’s something more insidious: teachers aren’t going to buoy the endowment. That’s the most cynical, I guess.”

Jeff Neal, Harvard’s senior communications officer, said in an email that the school does not offer a major in education because it does not offer majors in any professional field.

Stanford Professor David Labaree, author of the article “An uneasy relationship: the history of teacher education in the university,” offered another explanation: The top universities “focus much more on elite professions rather than semi-professions. Producing more teachers is ‘moving down the ladder.’”

The issue, Labaree argued in a phone interview, is the status of the teaching profession.

Education major: does it matter?

A degree in education means graduating ready to take the test for state certification, a requirement for all public school teachers in the U.S. No education degree – barring completion of a handful of free alternative routes like Teach for America – means additional coursework that costs $6,000 to $8,000 at a minimum is still ahead for a student wishing to be certified. That sum would be typically added to the roughly $18,000 in debt students who attend the top 20 schools hold on average, according to CollegeInSight.

The U.S. Department of Education also funds select alternative route programs through “Transition to Teaching,” a series of grants targeting recent college graduates who did not major in education, and who commit to teach in high-needs school districts.

But these options do not catch everyone. Valvano said he was lucky enough to graduate college debt-free, and returned for a year to complete Princeton’s Teacher Prep program. After leaving Harvard, Rhena Jasey pursued a master’s degree in elementary and childhood education at Columbia University’s Teachers College. But the post-graduate degree was no silver bullet.

Rent rates, loan payments, and a $40,000 -a -year annual salary as a starting teacher forced Jasey to live with her parents for three years.

“The only reason I was even able to be a teacher is because my parents could afford to have me live with them,” she explained. “A lot of people don’t have that support or don’t want to have to go back. They think ‘I have an Ivy League degree. I should be able to support myself, as a 24-year-old.’ And they’re right they should be.”

Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, said she still sees certification as an obstacle for a non-education major because of the cost.

“You are quickly discouraged by the coursework requirements put in front of you,” said Walsh. “It’s really unfortunate that teaching is held in such low regard that the nation’s top colleges and universities see it as beneath them to train teachers.”

The Ivy League’s answer to situations like Jasey’s and perceptions like Walsh’s is the in-house alternative certification program. Yale dropped its program recently due to budget constraints. Columbia outsources its classes for certification to nearby Barnard College. But every other Ivy offers one.

However, these programs are often little known campus entities that require multiple days a week teaching in conjunction with a student’s senior thesis, and are in no way comparable to an education major. Four of the remaining Ivy programs exclude preparation geared to elementary education.

“I don’t know anybody who’s ever done it. It didn’t feel like anybody really did it,” Jasey said of Harvard’s Undergraduate Teacher Preparation Program, or UTEP.

Harvard’s teacher prep program currently has 18 students pursuing licensure. Director Beth Simpson, a graduate of Harvard College herself, said as a student she did not even know the program she now runs existed. Simpson said she intended to become a teacher while at Harvard, and taught in public schools for 13 years after graduating.

Harvard tried out something new last fall. Katherine Merseth, a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, taught the first class at the Ed School for undergraduates and had twice as many students apply as capacity allowed. She attributed the difference between the interest in her undergraduate class and the relatively low turnout for the separate teacher preparation program to promotion by the university.

“These general education courses are very widely publicized,” Merseth said.

Stanford’s Labaree has a theory on the marginalization of teacher preparation programs at elite universities: “I think they’re a little nervous about putting too much emphasis on it because it’s risky. They want to keep their toe in…. but they also don’t want to be grinding out practitioners not quite at the level that universities want.”

The value of the full-blown education major is not a black and white issue. Emily Feistritzer, president and CEO of the National Center for Alternative Teacher Certification (NCATC), said there is a general misconception about how an education major relates to a person becoming a teacher – and a good one.

“It really is no longer valid to talk about education degrees and teachers in the same sentence, because there is not a one-to-one correspondence,” she said, referencing the alternative routes to state certification. She organized those pathways in a database.

Feistritzer, however, distinguished between getting certified, and getting hired. The education degree, she said, “is still an important part of the culture.”

The alternative teacher certification route has just exploded,” Feistritzer said. “It is difficult for a person to navigate, to choose.”

More to a major than a major

Harvard’s Jeff Neal said that aspiring teachers are in the same boat with aspiring doctors, lawyers and financiers. But Jasey and Valvano didn’t agree with Neal’s take.

“Being a senior at Harvard was very stressful because when I went to the office of career services…there really wasn’t any guidance or support for anybody who was not going into one of the top fields,” Jasey recalled.

Career counselors with experience advising students on education careers are noticeably absent from elite universities that do not grant the specific degrees.

The person dedicated by Harvard’s office of career services to “education” focuses on helping students pursue international experiences, according to her biography on the office’s site. There is no mention of any experience relevant to advising K-12 teachers.

Harvard, by contrast, dedicates a single career counselor to students entering business, two counselors to pre-med students, and three to students planning to pursue general graduate degrees. Yale, likewise, divides its career counselors into three categories: health, law, and general. Princeton staffs people dedicated to engineering, to law, but not to teaching.

“You don’t have public school principals or H.R. folks lining up to glad-hand the teacher candidates,” Valvano said of the difference between career services for him and his friends. “In the past I would have been angrier about it, like ‘what the hell? Why can’t education do that?’”

Education does do that at Vanderbilt, one of the three top 20 schools with the education major.

“Starting in February and March there is extensive direct recruitment with other folks coming in. That’s well-organized,” said Marcy Singer-Gabella, associate chairwoman for teacher education. “And then all the way through students are getting messages about opportunities.”

Vanderbilt also employs a career counselor dedicated to teaching jobs and another dedicated to teacher licensure. Additionally, the office of career service’s website includes sample education-specific resumes, cover letters, and likely job interview questions for teacher candidates.

The difference between professional preparation at elite universities for future teachers, lawyers, and doctors is not limited to the office of career services. Neal is correct that Harvard does not offer majors in any other vocation. The university, however, does offer classes focused on them.

Take law. Twelve undergraduate classes in Harvard’s department of government focus on it. No class in the department addresses education. Seven classes in the department of history focus on the law. One addresses education. Eleven freshman seminars, likewise, deal directly with the law, and one (a new seminar) with education.

Impression: positioned to be drum majors, not interested

McKinsey&Company reported in 2010 that 23 percent of new teachers come from the bottom-third of college graduates, based on SAT scores.

“It’s kind of a chicken and the egg problem,” Labaree said of the status of teaching and elite schools minimizing the programs. “Nobody wants to go first…. It’s that calculation of maintaining the brand.”

Education majors are generally absent, peculiar features and poor promotion plague in-house teacher training programs, and career support and exposure for aspiring teachers is not there at the majority of elite universities. Some people wonder if the leaders of the college pack could do more to move the number McKinsey reported.

“These schools are already revered as being ‘top’ – whatever that means – they already have this level of prestige associated with them,” Jasey said. “If you could major in education at Harvard undergrad…. You would have students saying, ‘Oh, wait. I can major in education, so maybe it isn’t just for people who are dumb because I could do other things. I’m at Harvard, and education’s on the table.’”