After Years of Decline, Teacher Academic Quality Improving Slowly

(Photo: Pixabay, Creative Commons)

(Photo: Pixabay, Creative Commons)

A study published in Education Next has detailed at the state of teacher quality in the United States, as various studies show the academic success of students is dependent, at least in part, to access to high-quality teachers.

Many have noted that in the United States, teachers are not always drawn from the highest-performing student populations, which runs contrary to top-performing countries such as Finland, Korea, and Singapore.  Evidence also suggests that academic proficiency among teachers is important for increasing student test scores, which in turn is associated with strong cognitive skills which is then measured by SAT or licensure test scores.

Authors Dan Goldhaber and Joe Walch go on to discuss the long-term trends in the makeup of the teacher workforce, which they refer to as “troubling.”  They say that teaching is a female-dominated profession, with the most academically proficient females tending to have become teachers in the 1960s.  While women today still account for the majority of the workforce, their academic credentials are on the decline.  Current research shows that the likelihood of female teachers to have been among the highest-scoring 10% of high school students on standardized tests to have fallen from 24% to 11% between 1971 and 2000.

At the same time, a policy push has been in place to increase the quality level of the teacher workforce in the United States.  For example, No Child Left Behind, implemented in 2001, highlighted academic competence through its requirement that prospective teachers either graduate with a major in the subject they are teaching, have credits equivalent to a major, or pass a qualifying test to prove they are competent in the topic.  Alternative pathways to certification have also been introduced in an effort to increase the academic level of prospective teachers.  In addition, new standards for teacher training programs have been implemented by the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation requiring a collective grade-point average of 3.0 and college admission test scores above the national average by 2017 and within the top one-third by 2020.

While teachers in the United States are not typically from the higher end of the academic achievement distribution, the authors maintain that this has changed over time in an encouraging direction.  They report an upward shift in achievement for 2008 college graduates who entered the teaching field, as 2008 graduates with and without STEM majors who entered the teaching workforce the following year showed higher SAT scores than their peers who entered other occupations.

The authors say they cannot explore any connection between alternative pathways into the teaching profession and academic success among prospective teachers because the way in which students were asked about their preparation has changed over time.  However, they add that these alternative routes are not likely to be the main reason for the change in SAT scores, since not many of the alternative certification programs are highly selective aside from programs such as Teach for America.

They add that labor market differences may account for the rise in SAT scores, as data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show the average unemployment rate in 2009 to be about 9%, and then dropping to around 6% and 5% in 1994 and 2001, respectively.  They say the high unemployment rate may have caused more high-scoring graduates to turn to teaching because they viewed it as a stable and secure job choice.