Teachers are Getting Smarter; Can We Smarten Up Too?

Yesterday’s New York Times editorial section includes a column by  Frank Bruni regarding a partnership between the U.S. Department of Education, Microsoft, and Teach for America that intends to recruit “a new generation of classroom educators":
In addition to recruiting more candidates with science and math backgrounds, [U.S. Sec'y of Education Arne] Duncan said, the nation’s public schools need to attract more Hispanics and blacks, particularly men, to teaching. Citing the model of several countries where students regularly score high on standardized tests, Mr. Duncan said that they pull their teaching corps from the top tenth to top third of college graduates. He said he wanted to persuade “very, very high caliber college graduates to come and work in our nation’s schools.”
Certainly, it’s hard to disagree with an initiative to recruit “high caliber college graduates” as teachers. (U.S. teachers typically come from the bottom third of their college classes, unlike other countries with schools systems we covet, and explains at least part of our Finland-philia.)  The partnership Bruni describes is also timely:  trends suggest that the teaching profession is beginning to attract higher-achieving prospects. A new report by Dan Goldhaber and Joe Walch  entitled “Gains in Teacher Quality” analyzes “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.”

In part, this uptick in prospective teacher aptitude can be attributed to the terrible job market faced by new college graduates. Explain Goldhaber and Walch,
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.
Anyone with older teenagers and young adults (I have four) knows that this generation tends to be more risk-averse than, say, their parents.  As Megan MCardle points out, kids these days are, in this sense,  more comparable to people who grew up during the Great Depression when pensions and job security were more highly valued.

My dad, for example, came home from the Korean War and, courtesy of the G.I. Bill, went back to school and got a teaching degree. He taught high school social studies for the NYC Dept. of Education for 30 years. My mother also chose a safe, low-risk career and became a NYC public schools social worker.

Many young adults today may not be as risk-averse as their grandparents, but they place a high value on job security. Concurrently (if I may overgeneralize) they tend to view their working lives with a kind of serial monogamy: work here for five years until something more compelling comes along.   This makes Teach for America's participation in the partnership described by Bruni especially apt, as its  model requires only a short-term, intense commitment (although something like 60% of TFA members remain in some form of education).

The teaching profession is changing, and it's not just data-driven teaching evaluations and the Common Core. For example,  The Council for Accreditation of Educator Preparation recently set higher  standards for education colleges: starting in 2017 education majors will be required to have a GPA of 3.0 and higher-than-average test scores and in 2020 the bar will be admission test scores in the top third.

Logically, other changes should follow, particularly changes to compensation models. It's time to ditch back-loaded salary guides that award high salaries and pensions only after many  years of service. This isn't our parents' school system anymore. It's belongs to our kids.

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