Attracting The “Best Candidates” To Teaching

Posted by on August 15, 2011

** Also posted here on “Valerie Strauss’ Answer Sheet” in the Washington Post

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.

- Matt Di Carlo


10 Comments posted so far

  • [...] Apologies to the fine Shanker Blog for “stealing” most of this blog’s title from them [...]

    August 15, 2011 at 2:41 PM
  • Thank you for this interesting and original essay. Yet the challenge is not to find a way how to attract the ‘top third’ of students, but to turn the teaching job into such an attractive occupation that more students with a talent for teaching would consider becoming a teacher. At present, many of these talents – whoever they are, because their talent is not necessarily related to GPA – do not consider a career in teaching.

    This is exactly what Finland does right: make the teaching job so attractive (not with financial rewards, but with autonomy, time, purpose and status) that many students *want* to become a teacher – including the students with the biggest talents for teaching.

    It does not surprise that GPA is only weakly related to teaching success, as measured soon after picking up teaching. The merit of a highly schooled and intelligent teacher does not pay off at the first tests. And if the tests are narrow in scope, it will never reveal the teacher’s many qualities.

    But again, the issue is not how to force these high-GPA’s into teaching. The issue is how to make the teaching job so attractive that the talented students will self-select.

    My advice would be to normalize the teaching load (number of teaching hours, number of students a teacher sees every week). Furthermore, to raise the bar somewhat and establish a ‘lower limit’ for entrance into teacher education so that the very weakest students are excluded.

    Then start using normalized tests for their intended purpose: not to whip teachers but to inform them about their students and diagnose teaching problems. Create learning-oriented school cultures that award interest, effort and performance. Not with carrots & sticks, but with more learning. Because learning is its own reward.

    Comment by Hannes Minkema
    August 15, 2011 at 7:04 PM
  • Thank you for this interesting and original essay. Yet the challenge is not to find a way how to attract the ‘top third’ of students, but to turn the teaching job into such an attractive occupation that more students with a talent for teaching would consider becoming a teacher. At present, many of these talents – whoever they are, because their talent is not necessarily related to GPA – do not consider a career in teaching.

    This is exactly what Finland does right: make the teaching job so attractive (not with financial rewards, but with autonomy, time, purpose and status) that many students *want* to become a teacher – including the students with the biggest talents for teaching.

    It does not surprise that GPA is only weakly related to teaching success, as measured soon after picking up teaching. The merit of a highly schooled and intelligent teacher does not pay off at the first tests. And if the tests are narrow in scope, it will never reveal the teacher’s many qualities.

    But again, the issue is not how to force these high-GPA’s into teaching. The issue is how to make the teaching job so attractive that the talented students will self-select.

    My advice would be to normalize the teaching load (number of teaching hours, number of students a teacher sees every week). Furthermore, to raise the bar somewhat and establish a ‘lower limit’ for entrance into teacher education so that the very weakest students are excluded.

    Then start using normalized tests for their intended purpose: not to whip teacheThank you for this interesting and original essay. Yet the challenge is not to find a way how to attract the ‘top third’ of students, but to turn the teaching job into such an attractive occupation that more students with a talent for teaching would consider becoming a teacher. At present, many of these talents – whoever they are, because their talent is not necessarily related to GPA – do not consider a career in teaching.

    This is exactly what Finland does right: make the teaching job so attractive (not with financial rewards, but with autonomy, time, purpose and status) that many students *want* to become a teacher – including the students with the biggest talents for teaching.

    It does not surprise that GPA is only weakly related to teaching success, as measured soon after picking up teaching. The merit of a highly schooled and intelligent teacher does not pay off at the first tests. And if the tests are narrow in scope, it will never reveal the teacher’s many qualities.

    But again, the issue is not how to force these high-GPA’s into teaching. The issue is how to make the teaching job so attractive that the talented students will self-select.

    My advice would be to normalize the teaching load (number of teaching hours, number of students a teacher sees every week). Furthermore, to raise the bar somewhat and establish a ‘lower limit’ for entrance into teacher education so that the very weakest students are excluded.

    Then start using normalized tests for their intended purpose: not to whip teachers but to inform them about their students and diagnose teaching problems. Create learning-oriented school cultures that award interest, effort and performance. Not with carrots & sticks, but with more learning. Because learning is its own reward.rs but to inform them about their students and diagnose teaching problems. Create learning-oriented school cultures that award interest, effort and performance. Not with carrots & sticks, but with more learning. Because learning is its own reward.

    Comment by Hannes Minkema
    August 15, 2011 at 7:05 PM
  • Excuse me for the error in my posting. I hope it is legible nonetheless.

    Comment by Hannes Minkema
    August 15, 2011 at 7:08 PM
  • [...] Attracting The “Best Candidates” To Teaching There is general consensus about the need to attract the best candidates into the teaching profession, but how do we know who the best candidates are? Source: shankerblog.org [...]

    August 16, 2011 at 1:57 AM
  • DiCarlo’s points are well taken, but the question remains: How do we create schools that equate with those in “high-performing nations such as Finland”? After decrying all current policy proposals, he offers none of his own. Yet Finland (and other Scandinavian countries) do succeed where we fail. I’ve also seen some impressive schools in France and in Barcelona. So, how?

    My guess is that it involves a societal attitude — a sort of unwritten contract that their philosophers often call “social responsibility”. The sort of thing that ultra conservatives in this country label “socialist” although it is nothing of the sort. One sees it at all levels — in coordination of legal systems, worker protection, meaningful retirement, universal comprehensive health care systems, etc. Too often here we demand something for nothing, or for very little at any rate. Like, good teachers deprived of working conditions considered essential in other professional occupations.

    Perhaps we should provide some graduate student grants to find out.

    Comment by Amtak
    September 3, 2011 at 1:10 PM
  • I wish I’d seen this posting to include in my own posting on Educators’ News, A Few Words About Dennis. My posting also speaks to Matt’s concern, “…there’s only very thin evidence that we can predict teacher effectiveness at all…”

    http://www.mathdittos2.com/ednews/archive/week347.html#dennis

    Steve Wood
    Educators’ News

    Comment by Steve Wood
    September 4, 2011 at 2:51 PM
  • Overall, I agree with the main point of your article and believe the research cited is good.

    There are two questions I have. One, I think it would be very relevant to study the teacher make-up of the best charter schools in the country, that are taking students from low socio-economic backgrounds and leading them to very high, if not the highest, achievement levels in their respective districts. Do the majority of these teachers come from the top quintile of the labor market (in terms of their employment options across the board)? My guess would be yes.

    And this relates to the second point. In the traditional education mold (and ed. schools), few can agree as to what constitutes ‘good teaching.’ If t don’t know what will produce the intended result, then then it really doesn’t matter how bright and eager your young teachers are. However, in high performing charters, there is an emerging idea (in parts quite detailed) as to what constitutes effective teaching (think Doug Lemov). Then, you can study who is picking it up quickly and who isn’t.

    My second point is that you neglected a lot of the recent research linking certification route to student achievement which found the most selective programs significantly outperformed the others (TFA & Vanderbilt in TN & TFA in North Carolina). What do you make of these studies?

    Look forward to your thoughts, v/r C. Stewart

    Comment by C.F. Stewart
    September 5, 2011 at 1:08 PM
  • [...] I’ve said before, I’m skeptical as to whether less risk-averse individuals necessarily make better teachers, as I [...]

    September 29, 2011 at 9:06 AM
  • [...] [...]

    December 11, 2011 at 9:27 PM

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