It is testimony to the polarized condition of the public education debate that even good news can create controversy.
Take, for example, the report by University of Washington labor economist Dan Goldhaber that recent college students with higher academic credentials – measured by college admission tests like the SAT and ACT – are becoming more interested in teaching.
The examination of federal survey data and College Board reports suggests that those graduating with undergraduate teaching degrees and getting jobs had better SAT scores than those pursuing other occupations, a reversal from data recorded in 1993-94 and 2000-01.
“There was an upward shift in achievement for 2008 graduates entering the teacher workforce the following school year,” wrote Goldhaber and Joe Walch. Goldhaber is the director of the Center for Education Data & Research, and Walch is a research consultant there.
“I was totally shocked, to be honest with you,” Goldhaber said. He expected to find a confirmation of other studies that found teachers, in general, are drawn from students with lower-than-average admission test scores and grade point averages.
And the numbers show that it isn’t just prospective teachers in STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and math – who are outperforming other occupations. While that subset of would-be teachers always had better SAT scores than teachers in non-STEM subjects, even the non-STEM teaching graduates showed higher-than-average academic credentials in the 2008 group.
Good news, right? It is generally agreed that putting a high-quality teacher in each classroom is an important goal. To that end, it is also a goal to recruit more education majors from among high school graduates with higher GPAs and test scores.
For example, Goldhaber and Walch note that the Council for Accreditation of Educator Preparation has new standards for education colleges. By 2017, each group of new education majors should have a collective GPA of 3.0 and admission test scores above the national average. Three years after that, the standards call for entering students to have admission test scores in the top third.
“It’s hard to argue that having people with higher academic credentials attracted to your profession is a bad thing,” Goldhaber said.
But talking about it can trigger an emotional response from the current teacher corps along the lines of “Are you saying we’re not qualified?”
“I try to talk about it with caveats,” said Goldhaber, who emphasizes that his conclusions speak to averages and aggregations.
“Relationships on the aggregate level don’t say anything about individuals,” he said. “But someone always stands up and says, ‘So you’re saying you have to have a 1400 SAT to be a good teacher?’ ”
The authors try to steer clear of using the numbers to prove or disprove any of the claims and counterclaims in the education-reform debate. Goldhaber, however, said he thinks he did find evidence that reform measures such as more-rigorous teacher evaluations and the use of tests to measure performance have not discouraged the best students from pursuing teaching as a career.
The researchers found that new teachers taking on subjects with the highest testing pressure – grades 4-8 reading and math, for example – have higher SAT scores than those in less-pressurized situations.
“We see no evidence that more academically proficient teachers entering the workforce in the year immediately following graduation are shying away from (or at least not being assigned to) high-stakes classrooms,” Goldhaber and Walch wrote.
Why the improvement? It might be another consequence of the Great Recession that “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.”
Alternative explanations such as higher pay for entry-level teachers, extra pay for science and math teachers and the development of advancement paths other than seniority have not been adopted in enough states to be a factor, Goldhaber said.
“I think it is more happenstance than policy-driven,” he said.
Still, the report concluded that, “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.”