Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity

Would attracting better students to teaching matter?


Here's an interesting opportunity in education:

More than half of today’s teachers -- roughly 1.8 million of 3.3 million -- will be eligible to retire within the next decade, providing a rare window of opportunity to shape the next generation of teachers.

But the odds are that the next generation will be worse than that generation. In 1970, the teaching profession was subsidized by discrimination against women and minorities. With few other professions open to them, the best and brightest went into teaching. Today, they go into law or medicine or finance. And the pay was better, at least relative to other professions: The initial pay gap between a lawyer starting at a prestigious firm and a teacher starting at a public school was about $2,000. Today, it's more than $100,000.

All this comes from McKinsey's report attempting to quantify what we'd need to do in order to radically improve our stock of teachers. They argue that the best school systems in the world -- Finland, South Korea and Singapore -- recruit teachers from the top third of their college graduates, while we grab ours from the bottom two-thirds. Then, using market research on students, they estimate that increasing the proportion of top-third teachers in high-need schools from 14 percent (the current level) to 68 percent would cost $32 billion annually.

The problem is that it's a bit hard to know whether it will matter. As McKinsey says, there's not conclusive evidence that teachers who score higher on tests do much better in the classroom, and nor is there much evidence that the Teach for America recruits -- who are some of the country's top students, not just recruits from the top third -- perform better than other teachers. Now, South Korea, Finland and Singapore all say attracting top students to teaching is the key to their success, and it's extremely intuitive that attracting better students to teaching will lead to better teachers. In fact, despite the sentence I'm about to write, I believe it myself. But there's just not much evidence that it's true.

By Ezra Klein  | September 27, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Education  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Eric Asimov on El Bulli
Next: How to eat at an Indian buffet


You're assuming that pay levels have some relationship to skills and achievement. Judging from the results the best and the brightest have achieved leading our banking industry to near ruin in recent years I don't think you can make that assumption.

Posted by: AuthorEditor | September 27, 2010 11:19 AM | Report abuse

Why does the discussion around failing schools always focus on teachers instead of academic standards? Now of course, the economic and home climates of the students, I assume, is a large factor if not the largest, but what about the standards of what we teach? We keep lowering the bar for what students have to know, and indeed, our funding system is set up, or at least was set up, to reward high scores. I remember Colbert doing a piece a few years back about how states were lowing the standard for passing on standardized tests in order to receive more federal funding. Is it possible that simply raising our expectations of students would increase test scores?

For instance, a friend and I were talking the other day about how he took two years of calculus in high school, but by the time his little brother was in that same high school, two years wasn't even offered for those so inclined to take two years. My high school didn't offer two years of calculus. A relative of mine teaches at community college and is just shocked by the failing of state high schools to teach basic skills. Moreover, she's under immense pressure from her administration every year to hand out higher grades so they can increase retention and get more funding.

If we ask more of our students, and they are taught more, won't they absorb more? If our conversation is based on the assumption that kids would learn more if only they had the right teachers, then we're assuming they are capable of learning more if more advanced material is indeed taught to them. How can we have a serious discussion about how to get our kids to perform better when we keep lowering standards for what they must learn?

Posted by: zperez | September 27, 2010 11:59 AM | Report abuse

Unaddressed here is whether "top-third" graduates really ARE better teachers. My perspective on this may be interesting. I am a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Harvard (in the 90's). As I near a possible moment of career transition the thought of public school teaching has entered my mind. Yet the strong push to punish and reward teachers by teaching ability is a deterrent. Who's to say that my positives & negatives will blend to my advantage in whatever mechanized assessment of my quality is applied? Perhaps I am enthusiastic and open up some unique vistas for some students, but perhaps my manner doesn't reach others as effectively.

In reality it's unlikely I'll consider this path for other reasons (so I hope my comments here aren't too self-serving). But I worry that there will increasingly be cases when the schools will get willing recruits with unique qualifications and advantages, but that the assessment obsession will end up weeding out much of the variety that makes education interesting. At some point, a principal needs to be able to exercise responsibility: "I think having this Ph.D. dedicating herself to our school is going to be a long-term positive worth committing to."

Posted by: neversaylie | September 27, 2010 12:21 PM | Report abuse

P.S. My bad--the issue is not "unaddressed": Ezra turns at the end very clearly to the question whether T4A recruits from the Ivy League are better. I'd like to put a twist on what he implies.

1. (Ezra:) There is no evidence T4A folks are better teachers.
2. (Ezra, implied:) I do suspect that T4A folks are good teachers.
3. (Me, in addition:) If the evidence comes back saying they're not, maybe we need to think long and hard about what our evidence is really measuring & capturing and about the possible unmeasured downside of relying on it so trustingly.

Posted by: neversaylie | September 27, 2010 12:24 PM | Report abuse

I think there is an important distinction to be made between the upper third of all graduates and the particular brand of CV-polished, ultra-competitive types that TfA recruits. While the top third is generally distinguished from the bottom two-thirds by qualities which may indeed benefit teaching—say, a strong work ethic and firm grasp of knowledge and events—the top 1% is usually in that position due to their ability to thrive within the particularities of the élite university system. So I would guess (and it is only a guess) that while there may be a wide correlation in which teachers coming from the upper third of graduates are better than those in the lower third, there is unlikely much of a scatter within that third.

Posted by: ggdn | September 27, 2010 1:13 PM | Report abuse

The secret to Finland's success is fairly clear. It has nothing to do with the pay or class status of teachers.

Here comes the shocking secret: Finland's students are all middle-class.

(Looking at that chart, starting teachers draw the same level of pay in the US and Finland.)

Posted by: bobsomerby | September 27, 2010 1:49 PM | Report abuse

Rather a weak conclusion. Why not strengthen it by saying how many studies have been done of the correlation between test scores and teaching ability (i.e., no studies, 10 studies all inconclusive... etc.)? And then go on to specify whether there are any occupations in which there is no relationship, or a negative relationship, between test scores and success in the occupation?

Personally, I'm convinced that in the old days (i.e., pre-1960) teaching had a virtual monopoly on the best brains of half the population, hence the success of my generation.

Posted by: bharshaw | September 27, 2010 2:15 PM | Report abuse

Gladwell wrote a great article on predicting success in teaching:

Posted by: will12 | September 27, 2010 2:22 PM | Report abuse

One possibility is that in today's economy with high income inequality based almost entirely lucky breaks (i.e. bets on the market) and high inter-generational income correlation (i.e. where you start), that no amount of schooling can change, so students put exactly the right amount of effort into their performance, and no amount of effort besides paying kids to do well on tests will help. (Which appears to be the only thing that does!)

[Yes, there is the college wage premium that should motivate people to do well, but people who go to college primarily come from families that went to college, or otherwise have a high income -- the college wage premium may itself be a large part of the inter-generational income correlation.]

Posted by: JasonFromSeattle | September 27, 2010 3:21 PM | Report abuse

Actually, Ezra, there is evidence. Better students tend to demand higher wages, thus higher-wage professions attract better students. These students become better workers than average people, which is proved by the fact that high-wage professions remain high wage and you don't see firms trying to figure out how to drive down the compensation for a good lawyer or doctor to $50k.

So, higher wages equals better workers, on an industry-wide basis, not on some nominal experiment like merity pay. Compared to Korea or Singapore or Turkey, teaching is a low-wage profession in the U.S.A., and if we want better teachers, we have to pay them much more. It's really quite simple. And no, Teach for America is not relevant to this discussion, since it's a short-term experiment designed to treat teaching as a charity case not worthy of serious lifelong dedication.

Posted by: michaelh81 | September 27, 2010 5:22 PM | Report abuse

Are we talking kindergarten teachers or high school calculus teachers? Big difference, big big difference between the two in terms of the qualities necessary for success.

Posted by: bgmma50 | September 27, 2010 5:28 PM | Report abuse

Maybe we don't need to replace all those retiring teachers at all.

Why would we want to spend a lot more money on an educational system that is failing kids by the millions?

How about replacing those retiring teachers with some really smart computers, programmed to do what even the best teacher cannot deliver: individualized instruction.

No matter how wonderfully talented a teacher is, giving them a classroom filled with too many kids - spread over a learning ability/preparation spectrum from talented and gifted to remedial - is expecting too much.

Teachers then aim their presentation to whatever mean they believe will satisfy administrators and parents in their building. If they feel expected to prepare every kid for college, they may aim high. If they are expected to truly leave no kid behind, they will teach to the test.

No matter what strategy they use, they are doomed to fail many kids.

That is a failure we cannot afford. Our nation must be more not less productive and competitive. We cannot afford to lose human capital. We cannot afford to spend money on welfare and prisons -- to later care for kids we are failing now.

We need a system that lets quick kids progress quicker and slower learners progress more slowly.

For most subjects (not all) we need to hand every kid a computer and let them work their way through the best software for math (or history or science, etc.) we can find.

Please remember: our country is broke. Our nation is in debt. Our people are in debt. We are on the brink of sliding into no better than second place behind the Chinese.

We cannot spend more money on anything we can avoid. We cannot afford to waste money on failure.

We need to spend money on convincing the best and brightest who are now wasting their time developing the next, best video game to instead focus on delivering highly entertaining, individualized instruction in academic subjects.

We should ask: After all, what is a video game? It is a program that anticipates every possible screw up a kid (or adult) can make and allows the player to go back and start again at the point of error...progressing at the rate of their individual ability...toward an objective.

If video games did not allow individual success - regardless of ability - the games would not have a mass appeal. Quick, experienced (i.e.ready) learners progress quickly, slow "players" move slowly. Everybody gets their money's worth - or the game doesn't sell.

Why does our current education model continue to sell....when it so clearly fails so many bright kids and so many millions of the less able and poorly prepared?

One of those subject we should teach by computer (since we have a teacher shortage): Mandarin Chinese.

Posted by: JimHale1 | September 28, 2010 7:58 AM | Report abuse

Looking at your post on "the power of kindergarten," it seems like we don't even know what to measure in order to evaluate teacher quality. The summary notes that "the effects of kindergarten class quality fade out on test scores in later grades but gains in non-cognitive measures persist."

How well can we possibly understand the effects of teacher quality if the standard measurement - classroom test scores - misses a big part of the picture?

Posted by: blackwagonwrxsti | September 28, 2010 2:30 PM | Report abuse

It's worth mentioning that attracting top college graduates to teaching also attracts top graduates to the field of education more generally. While it may be hard to find the impact of programs like TFA in the short term, big names in education reform got their start as TFA teachers. Would have these people been working in education anyway? It's hard to say, but it's silly to say TFA is irrelevant to the conversation. I don't think teaching should be treated like charity work and I don't think Teach for America corp members see it that way either - TFA and programs like it spread a message to other young people that teaching is an important, challenging and respectable profession.

I don't have data, but anecdotally I think it is absolutely worth the trouble to attract top graduates to teaching.

Posted by: lpd502 | September 28, 2010 10:44 PM | Report abuse

Post a Comment

We encourage users to analyze, comment on and even challenge's articles, blogs, reviews and multimedia features.

User reviews and comments that include profanity or personal attacks or other inappropriate comments or material will be removed from the site. Additionally, entries that are unsigned or contain "signatures" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. Finally, we will take steps to block users who violate any of our posting standards, terms of use or privacy policies or any other policies governing this site. Please review the full rules governing commentaries and discussions.

characters remaining

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company