Tag Archives: Consortium for Policy Research In Education

Is it true that the dumbest become teachers?

9 Dec

There is a quote attributed to H.L. Mencken:

Those who can — do. Those who can’t — teach.

People often assume that if a person could do anything else, they probably wouldn’t teach. Matthew Di Carlo, senior fellow at the non-profit Albert Shanker Institute, located in Washington, D.C. has an interesting article in the Washington Post.

In Do teachers really come from the ‘bottom third’ of college graduates? Di Carlo writes:

The conventional wisdom among many education commentators is that U.S. public school teachers “come from the bottom third” of their classes. Most recently, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg took this talking point a step further, and asserted at a press conference last week that teachers are drawn from the bottom 20 percent of graduates.

All of this is supposed to imply that the U.S. has a serious problem with the “quality” of applicants to the profession.

Despite the ubiquity of the “bottom third” and similar arguments (which are sometimes phrased as massive generalizations, with no reference to actual proportions), it’s unclear how many of those who offer them know what specifically they refer to (e.g., GPA, SAT/ACT, college rank, etc.). This is especially important since so many of these measurable characteristics are not associated with future test-based effectiveness in the classroom, while those that are are only modestly so.

Still, given how often it is used, as well as the fact that it is always useful to understand and examine the characteristics of the teacher labor supply, it’s worth taking a quick look at where the “bottom third” claim comes from and what it might or might not mean.

Most people who put forth this assertion cite one of two sources, both from the McKinsey & Company consulting organization. The first is an influential 2007 report , which simply notes that “we are now recruiting our teachers from the bottom third of high school students going to college.” The authors fail to specify how “bottom third” is defined, or whether their data refer to graduates who planned to teach versus those who actually got a job (the latter method is, of course, far preferable).

The citation for this claim is a 2007 report from the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, which was issued by the National Center on Education and Economy (NCEE). The full report is not freely available online, but it turns out (thanks to the work of California teacher Larry Ferlazzo) that its source is the National Center for Education Statistics’ annual “Condition of Education” (CoE) report (2002 edition).

There don’t seem to be any breakdowns in the cited report that permit one to examine precisely how many teachers come from the “bottom third,” but the CoE does include a few tables on the SAT/ACT scores of teachers who received a bachelor’s degree in 1992-93 and had actually taught by the time 1997 rolled around (and for whom such data were available).

One table lists directly the percent of teachers who scored in the top half – 40.9 percent. Using figures in a different table to very roughly ballpark the proportion of 1992-93 graduates-turned-teachers in the bottom quartile (lowest 25 percent), it would be a little under 30 percent.*

Overall, then, 1992-93 graduates who chose teaching were somewhat overrepresented in the bottom of the distribution, and underrepresented in the top. The blanket characterization of these results by McKinsey (via NCEE) – that we are “recruiting our teachers from the bottom third” – seems more than a little misleading.

The second standard source for the “bottom third” claims is more clear and well-documented. It is a subsequent McKinsey report (2010), one which doesn’t rely on questionable interpretations from indirect sources, but rather its own analysis. That report claims, “The U.S. attracts most of its teachers from the bottom two-thirds of college classes, with nearly half coming from the bottom third.”

According to a footnote, these data are “derived from the U.S. Department of Education, NCES, 2001 Baccalaureate and Beyond Longitudinal Survey.” The appendix to the report confirms that the “top-“ and “bottom” third figures are also based on SAT/ACT scores, specifically those of 1999 graduates whose first job (at least by 2001) was teaching. The breakdown for these graduates is as follows: 23 percent came from the “top third;” 47 percent from the “bottom third;” and 29 percent from the “middle third.” This presents a somewhat more negative picture than the CoE data discussed above.

Why the differences? Because these studies are looking at different groups of teachers. In the CoE data, it’s 1993 graduates who had taught by 1997 (four years later), while the data used in the second McKinsey include 1999 graduates who, in 2001 (two years later), said their first job was (or is) teaching. In other words, each set of results is based on two different cohorts of college graduates, who are also identified in different ways, at different points after graduation….

Neither sample is necessarily representative of the teacher workforce as a whole, or of prior and subsequent cohorts.

Overall, then, the blanket assertion that teachers are coming from the “bottom third” of graduates is, at best, an incomplete picture. It’s certainly true that, when the terciles are defined in terms of SAT/ACT scores, there is consistent evidence that new teachers are disproportionately represented in this group (see here and here for examples from the academic literature).


There isn’t really a definitive answer.

Three articles examine teacher effectiveness from the perspective of students training to become teachers, teachers, and students. The first article examines a very effective teacher training program. Amy Hetzner and Becky Vevea of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel have written the article, How Best to Educate Future Teachers which is part of a series

Dave Eggers and NÍnive Clements Calegari have a provocative article in the New York Times, The High Cost of Low Teacher Salaries

At the moment, the average teacher’s pay is on par with that of a toll taker or bartender. Teachers make 14 percent less than professionals in other occupations that require similar levels of education. In real terms, teachers’ salaries have declined for 30 years. The average starting salary is $39,000; the average ending salary — after 25 years in the profession — is $67,000. This prices teachers out of home ownership in 32 metropolitan areas, and makes raising a family on one salary near impossible.

So how do teachers cope? Sixty-two percent work outside the classroom to make ends meet. For Erik Benner, an award-winning history teacher in Keller, Tex., money has been a constant struggle. He has two children, and for 15 years has been unable to support them on his salary. Every weekday, he goes directly from Trinity Springs Middle School to drive a forklift at Floor and Décor. He works until 11 every night, then gets up and starts all over again. Does this look like “A Plan,” either on the state or federal level?

We’ve been working with public school teachers for 10 years; every spring, we see many of the best teachers leave the profession. They’re mowed down by the long hours, low pay, the lack of support and respect.

The Center for American Progress has a report by Frank Adamson and Linda Darling Hammond.

In the report, Speaking of Salaries: What It Will Take to Get Qualified, Effective Teachers In All Communities  Adamson and Darling- Hammond write:

In looking at states that have successfully boosted student achievement in conjunction with hiring and retaining better qualified teachers, we find strategies that:

  • Improve and equalize salaries to improve the pool of teachers and level the playing field across districts
  • Simultaneously raise teacher standards and teachers’ knowledge and skills through strengthened preparation and licensing standards, strengthened evaluation for teachers and school leaders, and extensive professional development
  • Improve beginning teacher retention in order to improve effectiveness and lower the wasteful costs of high attrition by developing high-quality mentoring and performance-based induction systems

Federal policy can leverage strong steps toward ensuring every child has access to adequate school resources and quality teachers. To address the inequities outlined in this paper, we recommend that Congress should:

  • Equalize allocations of ESEA resources across states so high-poverty states receive their fair share of funding and inequities across states are lessened
  • Enforce existing ESEA comparability provisions to ensure equitable funding and equally qualified teachers to schools serving different populations of students
  • Assess progress on resource equity in state plans and evaluations under the law, and require states to meet standards of resource equity—including the availability of well-qualified teachers—for schools identified as failing.

Download this report (pdf)

Download the executive summary (pdf) 

A good comparative study is A Comparative Study of Teacher Preparation and Qualifications in Six Nations by the Consortium for Policy Research In Education.

Richard M. Ingersoll, et. al. found :

Our study suggests at least three possible sources of the problem of underqualified teachers. One possible cause lies in the pre-employment requirements and standards

themselves. The depth, breadth and rigor of college or university teacher training and preparation requirements and of government licensing and certification standards are possible sources of inadequacies. In these cases, remedies must look to reform of institutional preparation programs or of government licensing requirements.

A second possible source of underqualified teachers lies in the failure of the teaching force to meet existing requirements and standards. This could be for a variety of reasons–including deficits in candidates’ ability, education, preparation or training. Falling into this category are candidates who have not completed a required degree, lack adequate professional training, have not had adequate practice teaching, have not obtained a certificate or license, have not completed sufficient coursework in their major area of concentration, or are unable to pass required tests. Remedies must address the source of noncompliance with the standards and the reasons for gaps between rule and reality. Do those entering preparation institutions lack the ability to meet the requirements? Is the problem due to a qualification gap where an earlier generation of veteran teachers do not meet newly upgraded standards? Does the problem lie with the adequacy of preparation programs and institutions themselves? Do they offer inadequate curricula or support for their students? Does the source of the problem lie at the point of hiring and employment? Do schools hire candidates who do not meet theexisting standards? If so, is this because of an inadequate supply of willing and able applicants at the prevailing wage, or because of inadequacies in the hiring process itself?

The answer to why there are not more quality teachers is not simple.


A Comparative Study of Teacher Preparation and Qualifications in Six Nations

Consortium for Policy Research In Education

By Richard M. Ingersoll, United States  With

Ding Gang and Sun Meilu, People’s Republic of China (PRC)
Kwok Chan Lai, Hong Kong
Hidenori Fujita, Japan
Ee-gyeong Kim, Republic of Korea
Steven K. S. Tan and Angela F. L. Wong, Singapore
Pruet Siribanpitak and Siriporn Boonyananta, Thailand 


Dr. Wilda says this about that ©