Do Teachers Really Come From The “Bottom Third” Of College Graduates?

Posted by on December 5, 2011

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

The conventional wisdom among many education commentators is that U.S. public school teachers “come from the bottom third” of their classes. Most recently, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg took this talking point a step further, and asserted at a press conference last week that teachers are drawn from the bottom 20 percent of graduates.

All of this is supposed to imply that the U.S. has a serious problem with the “quality” of applicants to the profession.

Despite the ubiquity of the “bottom third” and similar arguments (which are sometimes phrased as massive generalizations, with no reference to actual proportions), it’s unclear how many of those who offer them know what specifically they refer to (e.g., GPA, SAT/ACT, college rank, etc.). This is especially important since so many of these measurable characteristics are not associated with future test-based effectiveness in the classroom, while those that are are only modestly so.

Still, given how often it is used, as well as the fact that it is always useful to understand and examine the characteristics of the teacher labor supply, it’s worth taking a quick look at where the “bottom third” claim comes from and what it might or might not mean.

Most people who put forth this assertion cite one of two sources, both from the McKinsey & Company consulting organization. The first is an influential 2007 report , which simply notes that “we are now recruiting our teachers from the bottom third of high school students going to college.” The authors fail to specify how “bottom third” is defined, or whether their data refer to graduates who planned to teach versus those who actually got a job (the latter method is, of course, far preferable).

The citation for this claim is a 2007 report from the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, which was issued by the National Center on Education and Economy (NCEE). The full report is not freely available online, but it turns out (thanks to the work of California teacher Larry Ferlazzo) that its source is the National Center for Education Statistics’ annual “Condition of Education” (CoE) report (2002 edition).

There don’t seem to be any breakdowns in the cited report that permit one to examine precisely how many teachers come from the “bottom third,” but the CoE does include a few tables on the SAT/ACT scores of teachers who received a bachelor’s degree in 1992-93 and had actually taught by the time 1997 rolled around (and for whom such data were available).

One table lists directly the percent of teachers who scored in the top half – 40.9 percent. Using figures in a different table to very roughly ballpark the proportion of 1992-93 graduates-turned-teachers in the bottom quartile (lowest 25 percent), it would be a little under 30 percent.*

Overall, then, 1992-93 graduates who chose teaching were somewhat overrepresented in the bottom of the distribution, and underrepresented in the top. The blanket characterization of these results by McKinsey (via NCEE) – that we are “recruiting our teachers from the bottom third” – seems more than a little misleading.

The second standard source for the “bottom third” claims is more clear and well-documented. It is a subsequent McKinsey report (2010), one which doesn’t rely on questionable interpretations from indirect sources, but rather its own analysis. That report claims, “The U.S. attracts most of its teachers from the bottom two-thirds of college classes, with nearly half coming from the bottom third.”

According to a footnote, these data are “derived from the U.S. Department of Education, NCES, 2001 Baccalaureate and Beyond Longitudinal Survey.” The appendix to the report confirms that the “top-“ and “bottom” third figures are also based on SAT/ACT scores, specifically those of 1999 graduates whose first job (at least by 2001) was teaching. The breakdown for these graduates is as follows: 23 percent came from the “top third;” 47 percent from the “bottom third;” and 29 percent from the “middle third.” This presents a somewhat more negative picture than the CoE data discussed above.

Why the differences? Because these studies are looking at different groups of teachers. In the CoE data, it’s 1993 graduates who had taught by 1997 (four years later), while the data used in the second McKinsey include 1999 graduates who, in 2001 (two years later), said their first job was (or is) teaching. In other words, each set of results is based on two different cohorts of college graduates, who are also identified in different ways, at different points after graduation.

Neither sample is necessarily representative of the teacher workforce as a whole, or of prior and subsequent cohorts.

Overall, then, the blanket assertion that teachers are coming from the “bottom third” of graduates is, at best, an incomplete picture. It’s certainly true that, when the terciles are defined in terms of SAT/ACT scores, there is consistent evidence that new teachers are disproportionately represented in this group (see here and here for examples from the academic literature). But the differences are not always as large as is sometimes suggested. They vary by year and sample identification, as well as by other variables, such as school-level characteristics (e.g., poorer schools) and teacher characteristics such as race and gender. (And, by the way, their relative standing as graduates is based on tests that most took in high school.)

Finally, it’s very important to note that the “bottom-“ and “top third” may not be a particularly good conceptualization of either the problem or the solution. The connection between SAT/ACT scores and future (test-based) effectiveness, though it’s among the only associations strong enough to be discerned statistically, is still a highly imprecise predictor of “quality.” There’s some useful information there, but it’s unclear whether it merits the high-profile attention it receives.**

There’s no question that we should try and get as many highly-qualified applicants as possible into the classroom (though, again, how to do so is an open question). But we should also be very careful about oversimplifying the issue of aggregate teacher quality – and making sweeping statements about their qualifications based on a limited body of evidence – for the sake of intuitive, easy-to-understand talking points.

- Matt Di Carlo


* There are differences in these outcomes by school and teacher characteristics. Most notably, the percentage of teachers scoring in the top half is very low in schools with the highest proportions of low-income students.

** One important question about the meaning of all these estimates is how the distribution for U.S. teachers stacks up against other professions (there are a few comparisons in the appendix of the second McKinsey report) and, perhaps, teachers in other nations (which is discussed in both McKinsey reports). But the inter-occupational comparisons would also have to be interpreted cautiously, since it’s likely that the association between SAT/ACT scores and future productivity varies by job.

19 Comments posted so far

  • Thanks for the analysis, Matt. The claim is often made (usually by opponents of the current ed reform movement) that in Finland, all teachers come from the top third of their college classes (in fact, I attended a speech recently from Diane Ravitch, where she asserted that they come from the top 10%). Do you know what evidence backs that up, and whether the same methodology could be applied to the U.S. teaching force to see how we compare?

    Your point in the last paragraph about *how* to attract high-achieving students to enter the teaching profession in the U.S. is key – would love to see more research & analysis on that.

    Comment by Brian Emanuels
    December 5, 2011 at 11:51 AM
  • I can’t speak for everyone, but I graduated in the top ten percent of my graduating class (Cum Laude). BOTH times (Undergrad and Masters).

    Comment by Jessica
    December 5, 2011 at 1:38 PM
  • I don’t feel they should base the quality of teachers on their SAT or ACT scores. There are many people out there who are not great test takers. I am one of them. I had a 790 COMBINED on the SAT, and not much better on the ACT (19). I graduated with my bachelors with a 3.09 GPA, all done while my mother was terminally ill. She passed away my senior year of college. I completed my Master’s degree with a 4.0 in curriculum and instruction, and I just finished my CAS with a 3.7.

    I am a firm believer that there are people who are meant to teach, and those who are not. Just because someone does not graduate in the top 10% of their class does not mean they are not cut out for teaching.

    Comment by Jen Von Iderstein
    December 5, 2011 at 4:59 PM
  • Teaching is an art, not a science. Smart, creative and funny people make great teachers. Period.

    Comment by TFT
    December 5, 2011 at 7:34 PM
  • [...] On the not-quite-backed-up-by-data claim that most teachers were lackluster in school. (Shanker Blog) [...]

    December 5, 2011 at 8:28 PM
  • I am skeptical of defining a “high quality” teaching workforce as those who graduated from elite universities and had high test scores on standardized tests such as SATs/ACTs. There seems to be a hidden classism and racism in this definition as Ivy League schools continue to accept far too few minority students from low-income backgrounds. Also, aren’t test scores highly correlated with family background? Are these “bottom-third” teachers actually the first person to go to college in their families? Are they the students who excelled in high school, but were in a struggling school where success in terms of raw score is lower? Did their scores suffer because they did not take the expensive Kaplan courses? Could they not afford the elite universities?

    It seems to me that education “reformer’s” complaint about teacher quality is a way of putting more economically and socially advantaged young people, the Teach-for-America types, into classrooms. Frankly, given the choice, I’d rather have a teacher from the school’s neighborhood or at least city, someone who understands the daily lives of their students in a profound way, in that position than some young “top-of-their-class” elite white teacher. The Grow Your Own teacher program comes to mind: .

    Also, the current wave of teacher quality reforms has affected a disproportionate number of minority teachers. What does that tell us?

    I’m not sure that Finland, with its more homogeneous society, greater equal access to top-notch educational opportunities, and lower poverty rates is what we should be comparing ourselves to in terms of teacher quality.

    I appreciate that this post challenges the “top-third” argument in terms of the numbers. I’d like us to go further and redefine the actual definition of what a great teacher is. Perhaps a “top-notch” teacher in the US looks a whole lot different than the “top-third” of the class type.

    Oh, and I scored in the 90% percentiles in both the ACTs and SATs and graduated college and graduate school with honors. But then again, I am from the affluent North Shore of Chicago, so maybe that’s not saying much…

    Comment by KatieO
    December 5, 2011 at 10:18 PM
  • Thank you for this, from a teacher who graduated in the top 2% of her high school class, 1st in her undergraduate science program, and with a 3.8 in her masters degree. It’s nice to see someone actually taking a look at this data.

    Comment by WPE
    December 5, 2011 at 10:24 PM
  • B.A. = 3.5/4.0 (and I worked 30 hrs. a week during my entire undergraduate experience) M.Ed. = 4.0/4.0

    I also taught for two years in the Peace Corps.

    Bloomberg and the rest of these so-called reformers need to shut their mouths. Now.

    Comment by Scott
    December 5, 2011 at 10:52 PM
  • I, too, am one of those teachers with good SAT scores (1440/1600), a 3.99 GPA in high school (6th in my class, darn C+ in typing), 3.8 GPA BA (major Classics), and a 3.6 M.A.(major Classics), and am currently enrolled in a Ph.D. in Latin. I have a couple of questions, though, about how they are deriving the numbers. Are they only counting teachers who majored in education and then actually taught? What about all the career switchers or persons like myself, who never formally majored in education? When I started teaching, I was actually working on certification, though I had my Master’s in my content area. Would I have been counted then? I hold no degrees in education. Also, the point that was made in one of the earlier comments about potential impacts of socioeconomic status of teachers is a good one? I was the first person in my family to receive a college degree, and that lack of familiarity with higher education did make the process more difficult.

    Comment by April
    December 5, 2011 at 11:54 PM
  • I think this discussion is somewhat absurd. You are talking about college graduates. What is the percentage of college graduates in the country? Maybe 25 percent? So they are arguing about what proportion of the top 25 percent of the population go into education.

    Maybe it is just me, but I want the top college graduates designing the airplanes I’m flying in, or developing safeguards for nuclear reactors, or learning heart surgery, or doing any number of critical professions that I might depend on. Somebody explain to me why we need some esoteric egghead teaching third graders to multiply.

    Teaching is a very demanding and creative endeavor that mostly requires the ability to form relationships with children and encourage their endeavors. Certainly it helps to comprehend the content being taught but the true value of education is developing the people skills of children, their ability to relate to others and to exercise critical thinking skills to understand the world around them.

    These are generally much more wholistic skills than the analytical skills of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Read any of the instruction manuals for technology you buy written by technology people. Duh. People skills in nearly all professions are not correlated with analytical skills.

    But we are still talking about an elite ability among an elite proportion of the population. And you are also talking about a much larger population of professionals in teachers than in engineers or mathematicians. If you are hiring 50,000 teachers and 5,000 engineers each year, which can you afford to offer higher salaries to?

    Even if all teachers came from the bottom fourth of the top fourth of the population, it would still make teachers an elite workforce. This discussion is absurd. IMHO.

    Comment by zoniedude
    December 7, 2011 at 11:17 AM
  • What gets lost in most of the discussion of what teachers need to exemplify in terms of test scores and grades is the fact that the qualities required for teaching differ dramatically depending on what grade level or content area are being discussed. Qualities like cultural competence, ability to relate meaningfully to students, integrity, and a host of others seem not be in the picture. What is required to be a high school chemistry teacher is quite different from that of a shop teacher or special educator. Pre-school teachers have different skill requirements than middle-school or high school teachers. Boiling it down to attracting candidates with high test scores or grades eliminates considerable untapped talents and skills.

    Comment by Barry Wilson
    December 8, 2011 at 4:48 PM
  • Important point by Barry, in that whatever evidence exists on the connection between SAT/ACT scores and future effectiveness is based mostly on productivity measures of teachers in tested grades (usually 3-8) and subjects (math/reading).

    Comment by Matthew Di Carlo
    December 8, 2011 at 5:11 PM
  • Another bit of chaff thrown into the mix was some anecdotal date picked up by SAT takers some years ago. A number of people who indicated they were thinking of going into teaching received low SAT scores. It turned out that few of these people made it into any teaching program. I think it was George Will who wrote about it initially and started the gears of the propaganda machine grinding away. Gerald Bracey wrote about this.

    Will also generated the fabrication that teachers send their kids to private schools at a higher percentage than the regular population. Turns out, when matched for SES, the opposite is true. Again, Bracey wrote about this.

    There is also a significant study done by ETS “How Teachers Compare” that conclude, in general, that teachers rank academically with any other profession requiring a degree.

    Comment by Gary Ravani
    December 8, 2011 at 9:05 PM
  • [...] Do Teachers Really Come From The “Bottom Third” Of College Graduates? is from The Shanker Blog. [...]

    December 8, 2011 at 10:56 PM
  • [...] Do Teachers Really Come From The “Bottom Third” Of College Graduates? is from The Shanker Blog. I’m adding it to The Best Posts On Attracting The “Best Candidates” To Teaching. [...]

    December 8, 2011 at 11:18 PM
  • [...] a recent post, Matthew Di Carlo of the Shanker Institute provided a credible analysis of the studies that seem to be the basis for the claim. Di Carlo says that two studies by McKinsey & Company provide the underpinnings for the [...]

    December 13, 2011 at 10:40 AM
  • A lot of research is discussed here:

    Comment by Stuart Buck
    December 22, 2011 at 3:13 PM
  • Comment by Todney Harris
    December 29, 2011 at 5:14 PM
  • I would suggest that most individuals with a genuine desire to impart knowledge, think independently, and having the ability to communicate effectively, could excel in an education environment. Our “education problem” is really quite simple. We have turned our schools over to the progressives and unions who use the education system to promote their own liberal agendas and corrupt values.

    Comment by Michael Roe
    July 30, 2012 at 9:50 AM

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