Where do teachers come from?


If you live in or around NYC, John will be appearing in conversation with Randi Weingarten — the topic is “Unions and the Future Of Our Schools” — on Wednesday, December 14. Click here for tickets and info.

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One benefit to my being a reporter is the opportunity to spend time with people who know more than I do. I had breakfast recently with Marshall “Mike” Smith, the Undersecretary of Education in the Clinton Administration, and our conversation inspired this blog post.

The assertion that our teachers come from ‘the bottom third’ has been in the air for some time. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg seems to believe matters are worse than that, because he recently told a press conference that most came from the bottom 20 percent of college graduates.

In a recent post, Matthew Di Carlo of the Shanker Institute provided a credible analysis of the studies that seem to be the basis for the claim. Di Carlo says that two studies by McKinsey & Company provide the underpinnings for the assertion, and I suggest you read his analysis. One of the McKinsey reports asserts that almost 50% of US teachers come from the bottom third of college graduates, as defined by SAT scores (Other studies have debunked any link between SAT scores and teaching effectiveness, but that’s another story).

The data in these two reports have taken on a life of their own. For example, The Christian Science Monitor editorialized on March 17: “For starters, the United States needs to increase its pool of quality teachers. Almost half of its K-12 teachers come from the bottom third of college classes. Classroom leaders such as Singapore, South Korea, and Finland select from the top ranks. In Finland, only 1 in 10 applicants is accepted into teacher training.”

Teacher Training
Where are our teachers coming from?

But even if most teachers come from the bottom two-thirds of college graduates, just what does that mean? Let’s do the math.

Begin with 100 eighth graders. After seven years (not five), how many will have earned high school diplomas or an equivalency degree?

Let’s be generous and say that 88 of 100 will have that credential.

Of those 88, how many will continue on with their education? Suppose 65 go on to a 4-year or a 2-year institution. After six years (not four), how many will have earned a 4-year degree and thus possibly be eligible for a teaching position?

Again, let’s be generous and say that 32 of 100 will have earned degrees.

That’s the group we draw our teachers from, and that suggests that our teachers come from the top 32% of our population, even if they are not at the top of that particular pyramid.

So our teachers come from an elite group — college graduates — to begin with. Where they rank within this elite is the issue, and it’s simply unfair to suggest that a large group of people in the top third is somehow fundamentally flawed.

Why does this matter? Precisely because one proposed ‘solution’ to our education crisis is ‘better people.’

Could teacher training be improved? Could working conditions be improved? Could starting salaries and the bizarre compensation system that back-loads rewards be improved? Yes, yes and most definitely yes.

Let’s devote our energies to real problems and their solutions, not to ad hominem attacks on an entire profession.

Quick programming note: if you’re in or around New York tomorrow evening (Dec. 14), I’ll be appearing live in conversation with Randi Weingarten of the AFT. Here are some details. I’d love to see some of you there.

And of course, if interested in the above topics of teacher quality and training, I suggest you consult the Learning Matters site here and here. We produced a piece recently presenting some numbers about the teaching profession in quiz format; you can view that below (it’s great if you’re a wonk).

13 thoughts on “Where do teachers come from?

  1. worth noting percentage of age cohort in a place like Finland who go directly to college is significantly higher than that of the US

    by the way, using SATs is discriminating against those of lower socio-economics, which are disproportionally people of color.

    Where do student entering teaching stand in their college classes might be a better criteria.

    Or if you insist upon standardized tests of any kind, see how they do on PRAXIS or GREs as percentiles.

    That data might paint a very different picture.


  2. John, ask Randi how teachers find ‘teaching’ changing now as the accountability program bears down on improving scores. (Saint Paul now talked about ‘managed instruction’. What’s that? How do the teachers in Saint Paul react to that?)

    If the country wants to get ‘better people’ into teaching might it help to make teaching a better, more professional, job — and career. Would it be possible to attract ‘better people’ if teaching becomes a less attractive job, and career?

    Richard Ingersoll finds that the country does not really have a problem of attracting people into teaching. Its problem is retention. It appears to be true that half the new teachers leave in about five years. Why?

    Mike Smith recognizes that every major advance in information technology has fundamentally changed teaching; learning. This will happen now as digital electronics personalizes learning.

    You should ask how digital electronics can make teaching a better job; the teachers becoming advisers as they students enlarge their own responsibility for learning.

    All these questions need opening-up.


    • Hi Ted Kolderie (too long no see or talk):

      You’re (as usual) on the right track: Let’s focus on how to attract and hold the best talent possible. Two factors insufficiently discussed re these goals: (1)The bureaucratic organization of US public schools militates against a professional culture. It repels many quality people from even considering public school teaching, and for those not repelled it soon forces them out because of its misfit with quality student-teacher and collegial relationships. It’s worse in the bigger systems, but bureaucratic culture infects even smaller systems. (2) Public schools’ common lack of partnership with families and communities (especially in cities, but often in small systems as well) dimishes chances of success with many children now expected to learn at higher levels. People don’t like to stay in jobs where they can’t succeed. Public schools must shift to a partership model if it wants to attract and hold more quality teachers.

      On both points, public education must shift to a partnership model if it wants to attract and hold quality teachers.


  3. SAT scores are a very unreliable way to measure this, setting aside questions of how predictive the SAT is of good teaching, how reliable the tests are generally, and how they are matched for these studies (one of the early studies comparing SAT scores and professions used the survey students took as part of signing up for the SAT, where they indicated, as high school juniors, what they INTENDED to study. Not the same thing as what they ACTUALLY studied. I’d be interested to see the original source for that statement, not take it as a given–that’s what I expected you were going to blog about, actually).

    The most important reason not to use SAT scores to judge is that many future teachers don’t take them at all.

    Most students in the Midwest don’t take the SAT, they take the ACT.


  4. The argument that teachers are drawn from the bottom third of the workforce is just the latest version of the old saw: “Those who can, do – those who can’t, teach”. The irony is that those who make this argument understand the importance of quality teaching; but they fail to recognize that their teacher bashing undermines the profession.

    Merrow demonstrates that teacher bashers base their “bottom third” argument on questionable conventional wisdom, and he encourages them to do the math. So here are some numbers to consider. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports that the nation hired 388,000 new teachers in 2008 (313,000 in public schools plus 76,000 in private schools). NCES also reports that we had 2.2 million college graduates that year (1.6 million BAs plus 650,000 MAs). This means that to hire only top tier candidates, we would have to hire at least half of the top third of the graduates from every college and university in the country – every year – year after year. The teacher bashers seem to believe that we can somehow induce half of the top tier graduates in the nation to pursue teaching in lieu of other careers, including medicine, law, finance and technology – despite their cynical drumbeat of attacks on educators.

    As Merrow points out, as college graduates, our teachers are already among the best educated of the country’s population. With over 3.6 million in classroom, teaching is the largest profession in the country. To effectively staff our schools we will always draw teachers from a broad cross-section of college graduates – just as most other professions do. If school reform is to succeed, we need to get serious about recognizing, rewarding, and supporting teaching professionals.

    Teaching is the profession that makes all other professions possible. As a nation, we say that we value teachers as the most important factor in the quality of a child’s education. But the way that we treat them sends quite a different message. A key characteristic of the high-performing countries profiled in the McKinsey Report that is cited in this debate is the very high “cultural respect accorded to teaching.” More than any other recruitment policy, the respect we give our teachers will determine the future quality of the profession. It is time to stop the teacher bashing.


    • great post John and thoughtful response, Tom. To add a bit more to Tom’s analysis: Our nation graduates about 1.5 million undergrads a year. Of these, less than 10 percent, or 142,000 attended a Barron’s level 4 or higher institution (“highly competitive” to “most competitive”) on their 5-point scale. Look again at the numbers of teachers needed to be hired per year. The Yiddish expression is oi vey.


      • Whether admission to an institution is competitive doesn’t necessarily say much about the quality of education received or the efforts of its student body.


  5. I have a problem with the fundamental hypocrisy. Regardless of the factors that contribute to relatively lower academic performance gradewise and testwise for teachers as a whole – if we are to accept that these results are not indicative of the quality of their performance, then why do they perpetuate the importance of this system? Why aren’t teachers united in vocal opposition to grading and testing? If they are voluntarily in a classroom dispensing grades and expect not to be measure by that system then I have no sympathy for the bashed teachers who do not appreciate the way education is undermined by grades and tests. If students are going to be subjected to that environment, then teacher’s gpas and standardized test scores should be made public knowledge to their students and the community. I am happy to see teacher bashing when those teachers are more than happy to “pay it forward” where their injustices are concerned. If you don’t feel test results are indicative of performance, then why test others?


  6. According to the 2009 OECD Report, “Education at a Glance,” 31% of the US Population has attained a Type A education (4-year degree), so excellent estimates John! Teachers probably represent a bell curve. No need to worry about those that want to constantly bash teachers and do not understand numbers.
    I just visited a school in New Zealand, currently ranked #4 in the world int he 2009 OECD report in education. Quite a feat for a country of only 4 million. I was struck by 5 things:
    1. Teachers are paid less than they are in the US.
    2. New teachers are trained, trained, and then trained again – about every 2 weeks their first year (they automatically have a substitute in their classroom every 2 weeks). They are heavily mentored.
    3. Students are tracked and constantly reassessed whether they are in the proper place, regardless of age (all classes cover two years of chronological age).
    4. The native culture, Maori, is wholly embraced and celebrated so those students (about 1/4 of the population) buy into education. This is quite a bit trickier in the United States as our ethnic minority groups are far more varied and less populated than the Maori. Still, it is incredibly important that all students feel that education is about them and not just some European descendants.
    5. Failing schools are given more money, not less, so they can succeed.
    I may receive hate responses, but the answer is not in paying teachers more. If teaching becomes a job with retirement guaranteed at 55 with a nice pension (always forgotten in salary calculations) then those who can’t will teach because they are attracted to the profession for the wrong reasons. We need teachers who are passionate about children even if they can’t retire at age 55 and are not guaranteed a job until retirement (tenure) after three years of satisfactory employment. We need to support new teachers with teacher training, lots of it, and we need to keep our class size down, which means we probably also need to lower teacher salaries or abandon pensions (and tenure, for that matter).
    Independent school teachers (of which I am one) are typically paid less than public school teachers, with no pension, and a year to year contract. There is no tenure. Class size is smaller and usually the class load is four classes instead of five at the secondary level. This keeps teachers on their toes and gives teachers enough of a reasonable workload so that teaching is the joyous profession it should be. The wages are lower and no pension (which provides for the lower work load) but it is a comfortable and happy way of life.


  7. Just an observation (and somewhat a rant) from a former classroom teacher who would love to go back if the pay ever changes. Seems the real issue for us from the bottom third who end up in classrooms is that, like many of our students today, we were and are bored, unmotivated, and stressed and sometimes all at the same time. It isn’t that we don’t care about student progress or achievement, it is that we don’t care in the same way as the wags. I don’t pretend to speak for all of us bottom feeders, although I was damn good teacher without the training and support, but I suspect more of us experienced those sentiments than did not.

    We also suffer a sort of masochistic glee in being told we do a horrible job, yet find ourselves putting in our regular contracted hours (generally 40 hours per week). But don’t forget the after school mentoring and/or tutoring we do or the other extended day offerings we gladly participate in because we see our students begin to get it with just a little more time on task. And then we advise a club, coach a team, chaperone an activity or event, take on lead teacher duties or participate in various committees or whatever is needed to make our school better and all that adds a few to many hours a week to our schedules. Oh, and don’t forget the homework and projects we take home to correct outside our contract time. More often than we get credit for doing, we arrive at 6 am so we can work on stuff before colleagues and students show up around 7:30 (or we teach at that time a zero hour offering). We often stay until 5 or 6 pm or later referencing the above items. And on homework, we either have to give a ton of it or very little of it depending on IEPs, 504s and overall parent and student expectations. We do lesson planning and development on our own time. I generally averaged a good 65 hours per week of which 25 hours approximately were never compensated. And that is just a recollected average–some are much less (the bottom third of the bottom third, I’m guessing) and there are some who give much more (as principal, I knew a teacher that easily put in the same schedule I put in of closer to 80 hours per week). How dare I expect to make a living wage!

    While the holidays and Teacher Appreciation week generally saw some smattering of gratitude expressed, no one really ever understood I took on teaching because I believed to my core that I could make a difference. I took on administrative positions because I wanted to expand that circle of difference-making. I have taken on state association efforts and now work for an Educational Management Organization because, again, I want to make a difference and don’t see enough of the right things happening to change the game for our kids. And teacher treatment is a huge right thing we seem to fumble year after year.

    I drive a 17 year old pick up. I shop for clothes at Wal-Mart, Ross’ or Target if I’m lucky. I have a home in a lower middle class neighborhood. I lived and still live paycheck to monthly paycheck. And, yet, strangely, I don’t regret a single day spent in a classroom or being the head administrator at a school as long as I felt I was impacting kids for good. The best professional decision my wife and I ever made was to take the vow of poverty and go into education. I bet I’m at the upper 1% on those feelings.

    Thanks John for the great blog and all of you who make such rational and principled comments even if we don’t always agree. I usually feel motivated and engaged after reading stuff here at Taking Note and at Learning Matters. Best wishes for a great holiday season and an awesome 2012 for all us. And especially for our teachers and students!


    • I hope a lot of your former students have found ways and time to say ‘thanks,’ because it sounds as if you (and your wife) are very deserving.
      I had dinner a couple of nights ago with a friend in Palo Alto. Among his news: his son had just been accepted at Stanford. Even better news, from my perspective: the young man immediately sent emails to his middle school teachers to thank them! We need more of that.
      Finally, Darren, thanks for your kind words about what we are trying to do at Learning Matters. As for 2012, let’s all make AYP-plus-plus-plus in 2012 (the year we reject the madness of NCLB?)


  8. John,
    I teach pre-service teachers at a state university. Each semester the question of who was in a Gifted program, AP classes, honors classes, Postsecondary, etc., comees up and regularly at least half to two thirds of the class raise their hands. These are some of the brightest, hardest working, and personable students ever. There is MUCH more to being a great teacher. ( Also, for state schools, the ACT is required, they don’t even take the SAT. ) A warm, friendly, compassionate person who loves children and is skilled at working with them cannot be “tested”. I believe it is quite apparent that business majors and business professionals regularly show “less than warm and kind” personalities – and certainly don’t care about their clients like teachers do. I would much rather have a kind, caring, teacher for my children than a top scorer without those traits. Live by data – die by data……….


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