This was written by Matthew Di Carlo, senior fellow at the non-profit Albert Shanker Institute, located in Washington, D.C. This post originally appeared on the institute’s blog.

By Matthew Di Carlo

One of the few issues that all sides in the education debate agree upon is the desirability of attracting “better people” into the teaching profession. While this certainly includes the possibility of using policy to lure career-switchers, most of the focus is on attracting “top” candidates right out of college or graduate school.

The common metric that is used to identify these “top” candidates is their pre-service (especially college) characteristics and performance. Most commonly, people call for the need to attract teachers from the “top third” of graduating classes, an outcome that is frequently cited as being the case in high-performing nations such as Finland. Now, it bears noting that “attracting better people,” like “improving teacher quality,” is a policy goal, not a concrete policy proposal — it tells us what we want, not how to get it. And how to make teaching more enticing for “top” candidates is still very much an open question (as is the equally important question of how to improve the performance of existing teachers).

In order to answer that question, we need to have some idea of whom we’re pursuing. Who are these “top” candidates, and what do they want? I sometimes worry that our conception of this group — in terms of the “top third” and similar constructions — doesn’t quite square with the evidence, and that this misconception might actually be misguiding rather than focusing our policy discussions.

What do I mean? Basically, I haven’t seen much compelling proof that “top” college graduates are leaps and bounds more effective than their peers. Of course, our evidence in this area is mostly limited to test-based outcomes, such as analyses of the connection between measurable pre-service characteristics (e.g., candidates’ GPA or the selectivity of their institution) and their test-based effectiveness when they enter the classroom.

For example, there’s weak evidence that undergraduate training is associated with future performance (similar findings here and here). The same conclusion was reached in this analysis about whether or not candidates from more selective colleges are better at boosting student test scores (also here and here), and this one that looked at the relationship between college GPAs and value-added scores (also here).

There are, as always, a few exceptions. A couple of analyses find that candidates’ certification test scores predict their effectiveness (also here), while others do not. And there is also some evidence that combined measures of content knowledge, cognitive ability, and personality traits do exert some predictive power (also see this recent study of Teach for America’s application measures). Finally, while there is some contention as to the body of evidence on the test-based effectiveness of highly selective programs like Teach for America (TFA), which no doubt draw their applicants from the top tier of college graduates, high-quality studies like this one find that TFA teachers are moderately more effective than their peers in terms of gains on math but not reading tests (similar results are reported in this paper).

So, while there’s a fair amount of research in this area, the general conclusion is that it’s very tough to predict teaching effectiveness based on teachers’ measurable pre-service characteristics (for more research, see here, here and here). And, when there are associations, they tend to be inconsistent and small.

We should therefore be careful about defining the “best candidates” in simplistic terms such as the “top third of college graduates,” since the characteristics that might traditionally be used to define this group do not appear to be strongly associated with “effectiveness” (at least as measured by students’ test results). Moreover, if the most effective potential teachers do not necessarily fit this mold (and the evidence suggests they may not), we may be barking up the wrong policy tree.

For example, if you assume the “top third of graduates” lens, you might think that the best way to get “top” candidates into teaching is to make the profession more closely resemble the high-stakes segment of the private sector into which many of these graduates enter — more uncertainty and risk, higher earnings, pressure-filled jobs, and portable benefits that enable worker mobility. That seems to be the general assumption driving our education debate, even though, again, this assumption receives rather lukewarm support from the empirical evidence (and even though it’s also not clear how many “top tier” graduates actually are attracted by high-risk, high-reward environments).

More generally, given the fact that there’s only very thin evidence that we can predict teacher effectiveness at all, it seems unwise to presuppose that the best potential candidates have a specific set of hypothetical preferences for their compensation and employment conditions (or, for that matter, that personnel policies are what motivate good people to pursue a teaching career).

Perhaps a more high-risk, high- reward employment situation might appeal to the “top third” of college graduates, perhaps not. But it’s also entirely plausible that the most effective potential teaching candidates (whoever they might be) would instead (or also) be attracted to better working environments, loan forgiveness, or good benefits.

So, while I fully support the effort to recruit more high-quality candidates into the teaching profession, we should be more thoughtful about how we seek to identify these candidates and what might motivate and attract them.

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect the views of the Albert Shanker Institute, its officers, board members, or any related entity or organization.


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