Congratulations to the 2019 MacArthur Fellows, more commonly known as “MacArthur geniuses.” The honorees announced Wednesday include an urban designer; several writers; a visual artist, a landscape artist, a theater artist and several other artists; a marine scientist; a plant biologist; a few historians; a criminal justice reformer; a criminal justice practitioner; and a guitarist and composer.

All impressive, no doubt.

But, for the record (which I am probably the only one keeping), there’s one group of professionals that didn’t make it yet again: teachers for pre-K through 12th grade.

The MacArthur Foundation selects a group of highly talented people every year as fellows and gives them $625,000 over five years to use however the recipient chooses.

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The foundation’s website says, “The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation supports creative people, effective institutions, and influential networks building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world.” It also says a fellow must meet three criteria to be selected:

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  • Exceptional creativity.
  • Promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishments.
  • Potential for the fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work.

The foundation’s website further says:

The MacArthur Fellows Program is intended to encourage people of outstanding talent to pursue their own creative, intellectual, and professional inclinations. In keeping with this purpose, the Foundation awards fellowships directly to individuals rather than through institutions. Recipients may be writers, scientists, artists, social scientists, humanists, teachers, entrepreneurs, or those in other fields, with or without institutional affiliations. They may use their fellowship to advance their expertise, engage in bold new work, or, if they wish, to change fields or alter the direction of their careers.
Although nominees are reviewed for their achievements, the fellowship is not a lifetime achievement award, but rather an investment in a person’s originality, insight, and potential. Indeed, the purpose of the MacArthur Fellows Program is to enable recipients to exercise their own creative instincts for the benefit of human society.

As I have written in the past, I think teachers belong in the group of professionals who do work “for the benefit of human society” and who must be creative to do great work.

There isn’t one this year and hasn’t been for nearly a decade. A search of the foundation’s website shows that the last K-12 classroom teacher who won a genius award was Amir Abo-Shaeer, a high school physics teacher in California in the 2010 class of fellows. Throughout the life of the awards program, there have been only a handful of K-12 teachers.

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If you go to the foundation’s website and use the filter that allows you to look at winners by category, you can find there is one for “education and training,” and that search will get you 17 people, most of them not classroom teachers. (Those listed under this category do not include the many scholars and researchers at colleges and universities who have won awards.)

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Most of them are labeled as “educators” of one form or another, though there is a community leader and a bookseller among them, too. (They are, indeed, educators outside the classroom.)

Search through the filter of the category “STEM education and communication” and you get eight names, including a biomedical animator and a computer graphics animator. Three of the eight are labeled teachers or educators.

So why have so few K-12 classroom teachers been given the award since the program began in 1981?

Last year, I asked a few winners of the MacArthur genius award, who then became nominators for future awards. They said it never occurred to them to tap a classroom teacher.

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