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One Way Recessions Actually Help Districts: Great Teachers Seeking Jobs

Guest post by Stephen Sawchuk, originally posted on Teacher Beat.

Recessions are unquestionably tough on schools and on teachers—I'm thinking of the ridiculous pink-slip situation in California, for starters—but they might have a (thin) silver lining.

Teachers hired during recession periods appeared to be somewhat more effective than those teachers hired in more secure times, according to a new working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Why? Because during recessions, districts got an influx of better-quality applicants for jobs.

The paper was written by Markus Nagler of the University of Munich; Marc Piopiunik, of the Ifo Institute for Economic Research (also in Munich); and Martin R. West of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. 

The researchers used Florida test-score data from 2000-01 through the 2008-09 school years linked to individual teachers. Then they crossed it with market data from NBER and from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, comparing teachers hired during recession periods to those hired during normal markets, controlling for differences in experience, training, and other factors. (You may remember that there was a tech-related market downturn in the early 2000s, followed by the much worse Great Recession of 2008.) 

In all, they found that teachers hired during recession periods were more effective than teachers hired during better economic times, and that difference couldn't be explained away by other factors like teacher-turnover rates or age differences.   

The idea that more people want to enter teaching relative to other, lesser-paid or less stable professions during tough economic times makes perfect common sense. But this is still among the first papers to look empirically at how recessions affect the teacher labor market. 

Now clearly, the policy implications here are a bit hard to parse out. You obviously don't want to rely on recessions to improve teacher quality. Instead, the paper suggests that paying new teachers more would be a way to get better candidates in the door, regardless of the economic situation.

That's a simple enough concept, although as I've written elsewhere, frontloading teacher salaries—especially at the expense of other teachers—can be politically challenging. (Unions are big fans of higher pay for teachers, but less so when only some of their members benefit.)

One other implication worth noting here. Remember that recent study suggesting that teachers' academic abilities have been improving? Maybe it's partly because of the recession, the researchers suggest.

For context's sake, it's worth noting increased interest among scholars and journalists in how the teaching profession is shaped by market forces. The PBS NewsHour recently took a look at this topic. And teacher-turned-grad-student Paul Bruno, a commentator on popular education blogs, wrote an interesting piece for the Brookings Institution suggesting that perhaps one reason teacher evaluation results are so uniformly positive is that, with the economy improving, principals are unsure of who'd they hire to replace the teachers they let go.

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