How the coronavirus crisis can improve teacher quality

The rising unemployment rate due to the Covid-19 pandemic can improve the quality of teachers. That is the conclusion we draw from our study of more than 30,000 teachers and their students in Florida. This group included teachers who entered the profession between 1969 and 2009, a period that spanned six recessions.

Our research examines how a lack of job opportunities in the broader economy affects teacher quality – a key issue as teachers affect student performance throughout school and into adulthood. This is also a topical question as the number of job seekers is likely to be higher than the number of vacancies for some time. This can benefit U.S. schools and students in the long run, as we’ve found that individuals who choose to teach during a recession are significantly more effective at improving test scores. Weaker labor markets offer opportunities to hire stronger teachers.

The effects are most pronounced in math, where teachers who enter the profession during a downturn are 0.11 standard deviations more effective than those who start teaching when the economy is good. That equates to an average of $ 770 in lifetime earnings for each student taught by a teacher entering during a recession, or $ 13,000 cumulative over life for the average class size of 17 students. The good news is that many of these teachers tend to stay in the classroom and provide high quality teaching for many years to come.

The superior effectiveness of recession teachers does not reflect the differences in their observed characteristics or teaching assignments. When we compare teachers who started their careers during the recession with those who started teaching in better economic times, we find that they are not broken down either by gender, race or age when they started their careers or according to the demographic composition of the The schools they teach at differ significantly.

The driving factor seems to be the choice of profession. Economic downturns temporarily change the supply of potential new teachers, including adults who are looking for a more stable source of employment due to a lack of opportunities in other professions. Because of this, we find that the cohorts of teachers hired during the recession have a large proportion of exceptionally strong achievements.

School districts face tremendous challenges in the months ahead with sharply declining government tax revenues, concerns about widespread learning losses due to school closings, and an uncertain return to face-to-face teaching. These results suggest at least a silver lining and suggest a strategy to improve teacher quality even in good times. Take into account the entire job market and, in particular, increase the salaries of new teachers to attract more effective candidates for the profession.

Choice of classroom

The number of people completing teacher education programs each year has been roughly twice the number of newly recruited teachers in the United States since at least 1987, when the earliest comprehensive data was available. This implies that at any point in time there is a large pool of potential teachers nationwide who are immediately entitled to graduate regardless of the rigidity of state certification regimes. It also suggests that for many prospective teachers, the key decision about starting a career is entering the labor market rather than choosing a course of study.

To examine how business cycles affect teacher quality, we use a simple self-selection framework in which individuals choose a profession based on expected performance in return for their work. In this case, one has the choice between teaching and another sector, i.e. all other job market options for potential teachers. In typical economic conditions, fewer people will choose to become teachers if skills in both sectors are valued but teaching has lower returns in terms of salary and prestige. But when a recession hits, teaching becomes more attractive. Unlike private sector wages, teacher salaries are seldom cut during a recession. The hiring pace does not usually slow down. (The Great Recession of 2008 was a notable exception in this regard.) And the job protection afforded teachers through tenure could become stronger in the minds of job seekers. All of this implies that the average skills of people entering the teaching sector during an economic crisis may be higher.

Temporary fluctuations in the economic framework are most likely to have an impact on the choice of apprenticeship if the certification regulations allow as many people as possible to enter the profession without additional training. Traditionally, the US states required a bachelor’s or master’s degree from a teacher prep program to become certified, which likely limited any short-term offer response. However, the shortage of certified teachers in certain subjects has in recent decades in many federal states led to the creation of alternative teacher training courses that enable adults with at least a bachelor’s degree to start teaching immediately and at the same time meet the certificate requirements. As of 2011, 45 states had approved alternative certification programs, and one in five national teacher prep graduate graduates did so through an alternative route.

Our study focuses on Florida, where the certification regime is typical of those states that have created alternative approaches to teaching. Initially, the state only issues the teaching certificate to graduates of state-recognized teacher training courses who have passed general education, vocational training and subject. However, every university graduate can receive a temporary teaching diploma if he or she has achieved sufficient academic performance or if he or she has passed a recognized examination in the relevant subject. Such certificates are valid for up to three years and allow any college graduate to enter the teaching profession in Florida (at least temporarily) with a single exam.

Florida is not typical in another important respect, however, as much of its teaching staff is from abroad. The demand for new teachers has long outstripped the supply of graduates in local preparatory programs; By the 1980s, the state estimated that up to 45 percent of its new teachers had completed their prep program outside of Florida. More recently, in 2009, federal estimates say about 23 percent of those who received their first teaching license in Florida were prepared outside of the state. These statistics illustrate the extent to which the pool of potential Florida public school teachers is national and, therefore, susceptible to statewide, non-state, economic conditions.

Data and method

To measure the effectiveness of individual teachers, we estimate their added value to students’ math and reading performance on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test during the 2000-01 through 2008-09 school years. These estimates show whether each teacher’s students made more, less, or as much progress in these subjects over the course of a school year as their peers assigned to other teachers. There are certainly dimensions of teacher quality that are not captured by their added value to the test results of the students (see “The full measure of a teacher”, Research, Winter 2019). However, the weight of the evidence suggests that value-added estimates capture important aspects of teacher quality, including its long-term effects on student success and well-being (see Great Teaching, Research, Summer 2012).

We limit our sample to teachers in grades 4 and 5 who can be safely associated with student test results. We chose fourth and fifth grade teachers because these teachers typically teach all subjects, and we only consider student-teacher pairs if the teacher makes up at least 80 percent of the student’s total teaching time. This results in a total of around 32,600 teachers, 5,200 of whom started their careers during a recession.

Our data also includes information about the demographics and long experience of the teachers. We use the latter to estimate a teacher’s entry-level year by subtracting her total years of experience from the year she is observed in the classroom. About 42 percent of the teachers in our sample began their careers while studying; the other 58 percent already worked in the classroom.

To find out which entry-level years took place during a recession, we turn to the National Bureau of Economic Research. The Office does not define a recession in strictly quantitative terms, but rather as “the period between a high and a low point” based on gross domestic product, employment and income data. According to this definition, in the last four decades we find six recessions and eight cohorts of teachers who started their careers during a recession. For example, teachers starting their careers in the 1990-91 school year are classified as having occurred during a recession because the Office estimates the economic downturn in the early 1990s to be July 1990 (peak) and March 1991 (trough).

In addition, we also look at other indicators of weak economic conditions, such as changes in gross domestic product and various measures on unemployment, which strongly correlate with the periods of recession defined by the office. Our data also includes each student’s demographic and educational characteristics such as gender, race, eligibility for free or discounted lunch, limited English language skills, and special school status. We use this information to tailor our estimates of teachers’ value estimates to the demographics of their students.

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