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Gains Seen in Teachers' Academic Abilities

New teachers and teacher applicants have significantly higher SAT scores than they did a few decades ago, says a paper published today in the online edition of Education Next.

That's good news for proponents of being more choosy with teacher selections,  and it seems to argue against the conventional wisdom that accountability policies are deterring good candidates from the profession, the paper concludes.

"What is less clear is whether this improvement reflects a temoprary response to the economic downturn, or a more permanent shift," write authors Daniel Goldhaber and Joe Walsh, both of the Center for Education Data & Research at the University of Washington. 

For the study, the authors looked at three federal data sources: The Schools and Staffing Survey, the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, and the Baccalaureate and Beyond. Those sources provide information on the demographic characteristics of the teacher workforce, degree completions, and college graduates, respectively. 

They merged this information with data from the College Board, which administers the SAT college-entrance exam, and compared teachers' percentile scores from 1993-94, 2001-02, and 2008-09, the three cohorts available in the federal BB collection.

Among the findings: 

  • In 2008-09, teachers' SAT scores averaged 5 percentile points higher than in 1993-94; 
  • In a reversal of previous cohorts, both math and science teachers and teachers with majors in other fields, in 2008, performed better than nonteachers on the SAT, meaning that their cognitive ability has caught up and even surpassed that of other graduates. 
  • Graduates with high SAT scores were just as likely to teach as those with lower SAT scores, another reversal of patterns from two decades ago, when they were less likely to teach than lower-scoring peers.

 The authors also note a decline, from 10 percent to 6 percent, in the number of all bachelors' degrees granted in education, while the percentage of master's degrees stayed about the same. This means that more teachers are entering through graduate-level programs, where there is less available information about their academic abilities.

Because secondary teachers have tended to have stronger academic backgrounds than elementary teachers, I asked Goldhaber on whether that explained some of these changes. That pattern still holds, he said, but it doesn't change the overall (good) news about broad improvements in the teaching force.

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