Is Rising Teacher Quality Here to Stay?

by Reihan Salam

Megan McArdle observes that “teacher quality is improving as the labor market weakens,” drawing on a new report by Dan Goldhaber and Joe Walch in Education Next. The following passage is from Goldhaber and Walch:

[A]lthough teachers in the U.S. are more likely to be drawn from the lower end of the academic achievement distribution than are teachers in selected high-performing countries, the picture is a bit more nuanced than the rhetoric suggests, and as we illustrate, it has in fact changed over time in an encouraging direction. There was an upward shift in achievement for 2008 college graduates entering the teacher workforce the following school year. In fact, 2008 graduates both with and without STEM majors who entered the teacher workforce had higher average SAT scores than their peers who entered other occupations.

What explains the apparent rise in academic competency among new teachers? As we show, the SAT scores of those seeking and finding employment in a teaching job differ in different years. It is possible that alternative pathways into the teaching profession have become an important source of academic talent for the profession. Unfortunately, we cannot explore this issue in any depth because the way in which teachers were asked about their preparation has varied over time. Regardless, alternative routes are unlikely to be the primary explanation for the changing SAT trends given that, with a few high-profile exceptions like Teach for America, alternative certification programs are not highly selective.

Differences in the labor market context across years may help explain the rise in SAT scores. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average unemployment rate in 2009 was about 9 percent to about 6 and 5 percent in 1994 and 2001, respectively. The high unemployment rate in 2009 may have led more high-scoring graduates to choose to pursue comparatively stable and secure teaching jobs rather than occupations that were viewed as riskier in the economic downturn. By contrast, those graduating in 2000 were entering the labor market during the tech boom, when there was a good deal of competition for the labor of prospective teachers. Regardless of the reason for the changes in academic proficiency that we observe, however, the data are encouraging and may represent the reversal of the long-term trend of declining academic talent entering teaching.

Finally, we see little change across years in the relative propensity of STEM and non-STEM majors to become teachers. There has been a gradual increase over the past decade in the percentage of districts offering pay incentives for shortage areas (see Figure 4), but recent evidence (see work by Katharine Strunk with Jason Grissom, Tammy Kolbe, and Dara Zeehandelaar) shows that few districts are truly strategic in matching incentives to staffing needs, and as a consequence, school systems continue to struggle to fill teaching slots in math and science. It appears that education policies related to both compensation and working conditions must evolve further if school systems are to address the challenge of staffing math and science classrooms with teachers of strong academic caliber. [Emphasis added]

It is also worth noting that the post-crisis period has been a period of fiscal austerity at the state and local level, and this has constrained the ability of school districts to raise compensation levels. As Goldhaber and Walch mention, there have been targeted efforts to raise compensation levels in shortage areas, but it’s not at all clear that this has induced the improvement in teacher quality overall, as the increase in quality has also been seen in non-shortage areas.

In June, Neerav Kingsland suggested that larger structural changes in the economy might lead to substantial increases in the quality of the teacher talent pool:

Unfortunately, international trade and technology will continue to eliminate middle-class jobs. Personally, I’m worried that our political system will not adequately ease the pain of this transition. However, this economic upheaval will increase the quality of human capital available to schools. The education sector will likely capture some of this talent surplus, so long as schools are well managed (see Arrow 1). Moreover, if tech progress reduces the amount of educators we need, we may be in a situation where we have both (a) higher quality applicant pools and (b) less education jobs. I do not view the hollowing out of middle-class jobs as a positive economic development, but it will positively affect education labor – and in that sense, it is an arrow.

Kingsland’s thesis appears to have been vindicated by the findings of Goldhaber and Walch.

This isn’t to suggest that there is no need to reform the terms of employment for teachers. As Duke University economist Jacob Vigdor has argued, reforming teacher compensation can do a great deal to improve the quality of the teacher workforce. In an analysis of evidence from North Carolina schools, Vigdor found the following:

The existing salary schedule rewards teachers too little for the substantial improvements they post in the first few years on the job, and too much for the later years of their career, when they show only incremental advances. An evidence-based salary schedule would alter this arrangement, focusing the rewards on the early rungs of the experience ladder.

That is, starting salaries would increase and rapid early gains in effectiveness would be rewarded with substantial salary increases over the first few years on the job. The corollary of this front-loading is that salary increases would occur at a slower pace later on. This approach would do a better job of retaining teachers as they reach peak classroom effectiveness. So would more ambitious efforts to modernize K-12 education, e.g., promoting greater specialization in the education workforce, and embracing blended instruction and other models that deploy capital more effectively to take advantage of scarce skills. But Goldhaber and Walch’s findings are a reminder that spending more isn’t the only road to improving teacher quality.

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.