Changes in the Teaching Profession

In a research study published recently in Education Next, Dan Goldhaber and Joe Walch report on changes in the overall cohort of teachers across the country. They present a number of findings about the academic qualifications of teachers in 2008 (the most recent year of data from the Schools and Staffing Survey) compared to 2000 and 1993. They determined, for example, that first-year teachers in 2008 have higher average SAT scores than first-year teachers less than a decade earlier. Even more meaningful perhaps, those in the teaching profession now have slightly higher SAT scores than the overall population.  You might be thinking that this is the way it should be, but back in 2000, the SAT scores of those who had entered teaching lagged behind those of the general population. Most important of all, I think, is that the predicted probability of entering the teaching profession of those with the highest SAT scores is greater now than ever, while the predicted probability of those with low SAT scores has dropped in kind. The data are clear: teachers are more qualified now than they were since the data have been tracked.

This trend of the teaching force becoming more academically accomplished seems to run counter to much of the public discourse that surrounds public schools nowadays.  If you were to listen to all the fuss in the news, you’d be led to think that schools are on the decline in terms of their capacity to prepare the next generation. In the 2013 PDK/Gallup survey on schooling, for instance, only 18 percent of respondents grade schools in the country as an A or B, a decline of 8 points from a decade ago.  (With characteristic preference shown for what is close to home, however, the percentage giving an A or B grade rises to 53 percent when the question shifts to “schools in your community,” the highest percentage in the last 20 years.)

Now to be fair, the public seems able to separate out teachers from schools. In this survey, 72 percent of respondents express that they “have trust and confidence in the men and women who are teaching children.” Americans appear to have an instinctive sense that those at the heads of classrooms should not be blamed for perceived weaknesses of American public schools.

As someone who has the opportunity to visit many schools across the country, I would suggest that this disparity between the perception of schools generally and that of teachers is understandable. In my recent travels, I’ve spoken with and observed many dozens of teachers at work. I’ve been very impressed not only with the quality of education they deliver, but with the overwhelming sense of dedication that they bring to their jobs.  I’ve sat in teacher collaboration meetings where the discussion reveals a true seriousness of purpose in making classrooms live up to high standards. I’ve visited classrooms where teachers are continually pushing their students to ask and answer deep questions, to engage in meaningful conversations with their peers, and to present high-quality work. And I’ve seen teachers who value the constructive critique from principals and fellow educators that they can use to hone their instruction. In short, the teaching that I’ve seen—and the preparation involved in making sure that instruction happens—is strong.

Of course, there is always room for improvement. Too many students are not achieving at high levels and too many teachers are not finding the right mechanisms to enable that achievement to take place. This may very well be why schools taken as a whole get low marks from the public. Yet, if everyone could see what I see—if they could see, in school after school, the dedication of teachers to bringing students to ever higher standards of performance, a dedication that seems only to have grown over the last few years—they would grade schools overall as favorably as they do the ones that they do see up close. Indeed, Americans might be rating the nation’s schools, like the one’s in their neighborhoods, higher than ever, in appreciation of the improvements in teaching that are taking place before our eyes.