A Simple Theory Explaining The Decline in Quality of Public School Teachers

Individuals who have entered public school teaching in the 1990s and onward are less qualified for teaching than individuals who entered public school teaching in earlier decades (despite modest improvements in the past decade according to one study). According to a 2008 study based on SAT data, “education majors finished 25th in reading, 27th in math and a combined 57 points below the national average in both.” Teacher decline since the 1960s based on other earlier credible ability measures has been confirmed in multiple studies.

So, my simple theory (which I thought of independently but I am by no means the first person to propose this theory) is that the majority of public school* teachers—particularly at lower levels—have historically been women. The older (now retired or retiring) generation of women who chose to become teachers went in when the profession attracted more intelligent women. The teaching profession was a particularly attractive profession for women. Besides the inherent advantages to teaching (working with children, summers off, etc.), this attractiveness was due to a combination of traditional social norms and employer discrimination against women in other professions that intelligent men would enter. Teaching was one of the more prestigious and socially acceptable jobs for women to enter in the 1960s and 70s.

*The reason I don’t discuss private school teachers is I think there are often different incentives at work for those who go into private school teaching. At religious private schools, teachers may go into teaching due to religious motivation. Or, alumni may be more likely to return to the school to teach than at a public school. I simply don’t know enough about the workings of private schools to postulate whether this theory holds there as well.

Despite the fact that Hillary Clinton didn’t shatter the glass ceiling in 2008 (although, it’s hard for me to imagine how 18 million cracks would not shatter a glass ceiling, but that’s a separate issue), women have made extraordinary progress the past few decades. Intelligent, motivated, and accomplished women who at one time would assuredly go into teaching are now going into other professions that were previously more difficult for women to enter.  The result is that, on average, teachers are of lower quality than they had been in previous generations.*

*This is a big picture argument. Admittedly, the recession may lead more qualified individuals to go into teaching or to do Teach For America for two years, but my theory concerns the overall quality of public school teachers.

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4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by doc on August 22, 2009 at 10:49 AM

    Early female baby boomers generally had three choices: become a teacher, a nurse, or an administrative assistant (secretary) at some level. So Josh, for the most part you are right. Also, there were dramatic teacher layoffs in the early ’80s when the later boomers graduated high school and school enrollments dropped dramatically. Teachers were not being hired for much of the ’80s other than to replace an occasional retiree. Salaries stagnated for awhile (supply and demand) and women and men turned to other professions. There was a time that more intelligent men were drawn to teaching (particularly at the high school level), but now it is difficult to raise a family solely on a teaching salary. It was common practice back in the 50’s and 60’s for male teachers to work in the summer as counselors at day and overnight camps, but now those jobs go to college kids. Also, ambitious men and women are now going into educational administration in higher numbers as the salary jump can be significant. Frankly, I think school districts are now “overadministrated” and are top heavy. Too much money is being delegated to people who do not work directly with students. I do believe Obama is right in the idea of rewarding outstanding teachers financially, thus drawing brighter more ambitious people to the profession. But, unless the system is revamped and the economy improves dramatically, this won’t happen.

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  2. Posted by John S on August 24, 2009 at 2:06 AM

    I generally agree with this, but I think you rely on one slightly dangerous presumption. Namely, the idea that smarter people make better teachers. I’m not sure this is true of secondary school teachers, since they are not required to be leaders in their fields (it’s not totally unheard of for a high school teacher to just abruptly change subjects in the middle of his or her career). Be able to teach basics to young students does not require the same set of skills as being exceedingly proficient in academic areas.

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    • Posted by Josh on August 24, 2009 at 12:19 PM

      I was a little sloppy with my choice for words. You’re right that intelligence and teacher quality are by no means perfectly correlated. But, two points:

      1. I think the logic of the explanation still holds since some of the other characteristics that make good teachers (e.g. organization, motivation, a sense of empathy) are beneficial characteristics to have in other professions that women are now going into in increasing numbers.

      2. Smarter people don’t necessarily make better teachers but I do think they do make the BEST teachers particularly at the high school level. The best teachers excel in the other characteristics that are necessary for teaching but are also very intelligent. And, I think it’s a bad thing that we’re losing some of the best teachers are the public school level.

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  3. […] are just the opposite and deserve immense praise. And, much of the problem with teachers is due to systemic developments that channel potentially great teachers away from teaching and poor incentives that discourage […]

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