Low ability teachers, low ability students?

[cross-posted at LeaderTalk]

Here are some research findings for you…

Smart people leave teaching?

Low ability teachers, low ability students

Of the teachers who had high college entrance exam scores, almost a fourth of them leave the profession within a decade. In contrast, only about 11% of the individuals with low scores leave the teaching profession within 10 years. Similarly, more than a third of the teachers with low college entrance exam scores are still teaching a decade after they started, while only 15% of the teachers with high scores are still teaching ten years after they began (Anderson & Carroll, 2008; see also Guarino, Santibanez, & Daley (2006), who note similar results for university selectiveness and certification exam scores). In other words, the percentage of teachers with lower academic ability increases in schools over time. The brightest go elsewhere.

Teacher smarts matter?

  • Higher teacher ACT scores positively influences student reading scores (Ferguson & Ladd, 1996)
  • Teachers’ verbal ability influences student performance (Greenwald, Hedges, & Laine, 1996)
  • [S]tudents learn more from teachers with higher test scores. Test scores matter…” (Wayne & Youngs, 2003)

Discuss among yourselves

Let’s assume that, generally speaking, these studies are correct: 1) smart people are less likely to stay in teaching (thus resulting in a concentration of teachers with lower academic ability), and 2) the academic ability of teachers impacts student learning outcomes. Now what?


  • Anderson, S. E., & Carroll, C. D. (2008). Teacher career choices: Timing of teacher careers among 19921993 Bachelor’s degree recipients (NCES 2008-153). Washington, DC: United States Department of Education.
  • Ferguson, R.F., & Ladd, H.F. (1996). How and why money matters: An analysis of Alabama schools. In H.F. Ladd (Ed.), Holding schools accountable. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 265-298.
  • Greenwald, R., Hedges, L.V., & Laine, R.D. (1996, Autumn). The effect of school resources on student achievement. Review of Educational Research, 66(3), 361-396.
  • Guarino, C. M., Santibanez, L., & Daley, G. A. (2006). Teacher recruitment and retention: A review of the recent empirical literature. Review of Educational Research, 76(2), 173-208.
  • Wayne, A. J., & Youngs, P. (2003). Teacher characteristics and student achievement gains: A review. Review of Educational Research, 73(1), 89-122.

31 Responses to “Low ability teachers, low ability students?”

  1. Tough one. Perhaps more rigorous standards as one advances in education would help. Some private schools require teachers to earn a master’s degree within so many years of beginning and then apply or be in process for national certification after this point. Helps weed out those who don’t want to work at constantly improving.

  2. Assuming this study is robust, then it does seem accurate that people with higher scores leave teaching more rapidly however, the assumption that the higher scores = higher intelligence is not questioned in your post, and that is where I find a flaw in your argument. Do these test scores actually measure the intelligence of the teachers?

  3. I’m on-board with the idea that smarter teachers are going to be the best at promoting student learning. But I’d like to echo and add to Orenta’s point above .. if we’re railing against using standardized tests as such an important measure of current student learning, how can we maintain the integrity of our argument by claiming that the same type of testing is an important and valid measure for teachers’ knowledge? Though anecdotal, I know plenty of people who’ve declined in intelligence / knowledge / learning capacity after the structural support of family and high school settings are gone, which can have a strong positive influence on college entrance exam scores. Also, I know plenty of people who have developed incredibly as learners both in college and post-college, particularly in the context of teaching others. So, again, I’m all for getting the smartest teachers possible in the classroom, and finding ways to keep them there – but I think it’s a bit disingenuous, for multiple reasons, to use college entrance scores on standardized exams to make the point.

  4. I wonder how many of these teachers ended up moving into administrative or higher academia positions? I am a former teacher in the K-12 system that happens to be at a university now. I’d be classified as a “former teacher” in those terms, even though I now teach in a different fashion.

    Or does that even matter, because the issue is losing good classroom teachers?

  5. I’m going to disagree with Jonathan and Orneta – these studies (and many others) find a consistent relationship between teachers’ scores and student outcomes. Whether we choose to equate “intelligence” with scores, teachers’ test scores matter for student learning.

    Re what to do: Teachers with high scores have better salary options out of teaching, so we will need to change compensation practices if we want to keep these folks in education.

  6. This hits close to home because hubbie (who has a master’s degree in Physics and certified to teach through calculus) is leaving the classroom this year after 17 years. Why? Frustrations with student apathy and administrative weirdness. For us, it’s not a salary issue. Will he come back? I don’t know. I do know that the students that will miss him in the years to come – will miss out on an incredible resource and opportunity to learn from one of the best teachers I’ve ever known.

  7. @Orenata: These are just some of the studies; there are others too. All five of the studies I cited are from an absolutely top-notch journal (Greenwald, Guarino, & Wayne), massive large-scale national research initiatives (Anderson), or a pretty highly-respected think tank (Ferguson). FYI, there also are a goodly number of studies that show teacher IQ is positively related with student achievement.

    @Jonathan: I think people are ‘railing’ against use of standardized tests as THE measure of student learning, not A measure of student learning. There is a place for standardized tests for both students and teachers, no? Also, it’s important that we not refute large-scale research with anecdotal local evidence. For example, to say that most elementary teachers are women is not to say that all elementary teachers are women. Large-scale research illustrates general trends which (hopefully) are useful for policymaking.

    @Bethany: Yes, you’d be a ‘leaver.’ And, yes, the issue is how to keep bright teachers in the K-12 classroom.

  8. The ‘wonkette wrote:
    Re what to do: Teachers with high scores have better salary options out of teaching, so we will need to change compensation practices if we want to keep these folks in education.

    Do you think this is the key issue in the whole conversation? Are we woefully unprepared to keep top performers in education because we have a stagnant compensation system—and our professional organizations fight to protect that system at every turn?

    Think about the benefits that teaching offers: affective rewards, job security, pensions (in most places).

    Pretty attractive to a candidate in 1973, right? After all, that was an era when pretty much everyone got one job and held onto it for life.

    Today’s professional has no expectation of the 30 year career at all. What’s the statistic? Most people have 8 different jobs by the time they’re 30?

    The top performers in education today don’t find inherent value in the kinds of perks offered by our profession—-and they don’t have any qualms about walking away from job security and a pension.

    The kicker, then, seems to be redesigning the compensation (which includes more than simply salary) system in education to more accurately reflect today’s vision of a “career.”

    Does this resonate with anyone else? Is it a pipe dream that we’ll never be able to bring to reality?

    What’s the first step towards seeing compensation redesigned—and who’s got to take it?

    Bill Ferriter

  9. This is VERY interesting. I’m sensing the beginnings of a dissertation topic welling up here…

  10. how about: quit treating ’em
    like something the cat dragged in?

  11. Vlorbik – You jest (and I laughed), but your point that working conditions may be as important as salary is an important one.

    Bill – I always get dogged for being too academic, but a few experiments would be a good place to start. Most of the work on performance pay right now is looking at effects on student achievement (with little to show for it), but hopefully over time they’ll turn to retention.

  12. Some disconnected thoughts:

    1. As educators, do we truly value education? Why do I hear superintendents say, “I’m not necessarily looking for principal candidates from selective colleges or with high GPAs – sometimes those people lack people-skills”?

    2. Since the audience for this blog is made up of educators, a certain percentage of whom therefore had those low exam scores, will they really be ready to hear this message?

    3. If I could make an administrator’s salary teaching first grade, I might still be doing it. But, I had high exam scores, went to a selective college, and am sending my son to a selective college. Between his tuition and my student loans, I cannot afford to teach!

  13. I think part of the issue is that smart people can only tolerate for so long the incompetence that is inherent in (public) school decision-making processes. One can only tolerate for so long the idiocies of law makers passing laws that have little to no practical application, do not work in a typical classroom, and fail to address the real problems in education. One can only tolerate for so long the inability to do what you know is the right thing for students but is the wrong thing for the system and thus cannot be done without personal consequences. One can only tolerate for so long working in a society that expects teachers to produce miracles of motivation, planning, entertainment, assessment, and learning when so many elements of said society counteract that expectation. One can only tolerate for so long an environment where smart people are not left to decide for themselves what is best, have little to no professional respect (hence the absence of living, breathing, current classroom teachers on so many decision making committees, bodies, etc.), and are given the argument that well, no one goes into it for the money – it’s a noble profession! (Doctors are noble, why aren’t I paid like a doctor?)

    Having said that, I earned high test scores – basically skipped most of freshman and sophomore year in college because of ACT credits, AP credits, etc. – and I came to teaching later in life. I’ve stuck it out for ten years, but I’ve had to find ways to deal with my frustration, ‘suck it up’ on idiotic and impractical decisions, and keep myself focused on the students in order to preserve my sanity from time to time. Switching from a public to a charter school helped considerably. Honestly, I’m not as bitter as this comment may sound, but I do understand why people move on to bigger and better things. It’s not the money, it’s the all-consuming frustration.

  14. @Scott: I agree that there’s an important and significant role for standardized test scores in the interpretation of student and teacher intelligence. However, I am uncomfortable with your generalized statement – if based only on the citations from Anderson & Carroll, and Guarino et al – that “the percentage of teachers with lower academic ability increases in schools over time. The brightest go elsewhere.” and your stated assumption #1 “smart people are less likely to stay in teaching (thus resulting in a concentration of teachers with lower academic ability).” As I said originally, I absolutely support the notion that we should make more effort to retain our brightest teachers; I stand by my claim that scores on standardized tests taken in high school, or even at the end of a college program, by individuals who then become teachers are not the best data to use when making the argument that there is a longitudinal “brain drain” from the classroom. While there may be a correlation between this particular teacher characteristic and student achievement, I hesitate to make the jump into causality, as do Wayne & Youngs: “When statistical methods seem to establish that a particular quality indicator influences student achievement, readers still must draw conclusions cautiously. Theory generates alternative explanations that statistical methods must reject, so a positive finding is only as strong as the theory undergirding the analysis. If the theory is incomplete—or data on the plausible determinants of student achievement are incomplete—the untheorized or unavailable determinants of student achievement could potentially correlate with the teacher quality variable (i.e., correlation between the error term and the teacher quality variable). Thus, student achievement differences that appear connected to teacher qualifications might in truth originate in omitted variables.” Further, in the section of their article specific to the review of studies on teacher test scores and student achievement, Wayne & Youngs point out that none of the teacher tests used in those studies are still in use, and emphasize the importance of researching the correlation between student achievement and teacher performance on assessments of their skill beyond standardized tests. My larger point, which I attempted to make by providing anecdotal evidence, is that the teachers who do remain in education for longer periods of time are not necessarily less able to promote student learning, even if there is a correlation that points to their tendency to have scored lower on standardized tests prior to their entry into college and/or the classroom. With that said, I would certainly support hiring policy shifts toward selecting applicants with the highest academic credentials possible, including historical and more recent scores on standardized assessments.

  15. Addendum – I meant to point out that I do, in fact, think that the assumptions are valid and that the implications on policy development and implementation are important. I just happen to think we should use different / more robust data to support the assumptions / inferences. Also, thanks for inspiring lots of thought & conversation!

  16. Jonathan, thanks for the kind words and the thoughtful comments. A question for you: if IQ tests, college entrance examinations, college selectivity, and/or certification exam scores, separately or together, aren’t robust enough data for you, then what would be? What would you want instead?

    Yes, the conversation on this one has been good!

  17. Keep good teachers? Pay them more, lots more. Unfortunately, given this world’s commodity driven environment, money talks.

    In Singapore pre-service teachers are selected from those applicants with the highest scores. It is quite different here in Australia.

    During their undergraduate years the Singaporean teacher trainees are on a teacher’s salary. When they graduate they are paid well and they are continued to be paid well.

    They work incredibly hard. They work during the school holidays as well. They do not have as much time off as Australian teachers. The expectations placed upon them are many.

    Teachers are highly respected in Singapore. They are nurturing the city-state’s key resource ~ its children.

    Cheers, John.

  18. When I left a 20-year career in the private sector to become a teacher, I was stunned to discover that teachers’ pay raises (at least in my district) were based solely on years of experience and academic credits. So a terrible teacher (although not terrible enough to get fired) received the same raise as an excellent teacher with the same experience and academic credentials. So it makes sense that smart teachers quit; who wants to work in a system that rewards incompetence and penalizes excellence?

  19. Might it be that the smartest people in any profession end up leaving for greener pastures? Are there similar studies for other professions?

    If the smartest doctors leave medicine and the smartest lawyers leave law and the smartest accountants leave accounting then the smartest teachers leaving teaching isn’t such a big deal.

    But if that is so – where do all the smart people go?

  20. @oreneta
    I agree that it is important to remember that some of the finest teachers may not be the finest testers, and I realize several of you have supported this concept. Others have asked, “what other data is there?” That question really does boil down to individuals in their independent districts as each has a culture that supports people differently, and I have seen teachers be great in one district and less than stellar in another.

    I’m hiring Physics (to be the 5th teacher in the last 6 years) again. Most have found greener pastures in education (see above concept). As an administrator, I may be one that creates the issue for people that want to do it their own way, but I’ve also seen too many of “my own way” concepts fall far short of even palatable, so maybe that makes me a bit controlling for everyone. Some of the worst teachers did the best job of making it look good for a while.

    I agree with your frustration, but it doesn’t mean others deserve the blame. Again, I’m on the other side of your bitterness (although I will trust it is flaming on the keyboard more than in your heart as you indicate), but I would have to say that blades frequently have two sides. Most of my frustration comes from unionized individuals worrying more about fine print than skills and learning.

    Well stated. I truly believe that the only way to keep the playing field even is to eliminate the weaknesses early, and sometimes that means before you know how bad it will be. For some people tenure can equate with comfortable and non-motivated. Too late to act when that happens. As you stated “not terrible enough to get fired” can ruin a lot of students over the course of 10 years of ho-hum.

    Fun post.

    Maybe all the smart doctors go to law, the smart lawyers become accountants, the smart accountants become teachers, and the smart teachers go to med school. Although unlikely, it would explain that smart people simply get bored with the beauracracy of each of their chosen professions and move on. Keep an open mind, it could happen (but, sorry Jon P., my data is much less convincing than Scott’s).

    I like to play the hated administrator occasionally (maybe daily), so fire away with where I missed the boat.

  21. I truly find all of this quite interesting. I am offended by sstewart’s comment #2. As a current teacher looking into this blog, I will honestly say that if it were up to what my college entrance exam score was, I would probably not be teaching. As a high school student, I would say that I worked hard, but when it came to taking the ACT it didn’t seem nearly as important as it does to my students now. Of course times have changed and with the higher the score the greater the scholarship – the reward is worth the extra work.
    As I attended college and starting work in my field of study, I learned of course that I had much to learn before actually getting into the classroom. With hard work and determination, I was able to earn my degree and become a teacher. My university granted me my teaching endorsement – shouldn’t that be a good indicator of how well I can teach without having to take a test? Not everyone who gets into the program earns an endorsement.
    Also, I am not sure if every teacher has experienced this, but I really never “learned” anything about my field of study until I taught it to someone else. The concepts were there and the strategies were in place, but until I got in front of the classroom and showed my students how to do what it was I expected of them those ideas were not concrete.
    I agree that something needs to be done to keep good teachers in teaching. I also agree that money is part of the issue, but honestly most people don’t get into teaching for the pay – or if they do – they don’t stay very long.
    Maybe we could look to former students as “references” to how well we do. Or how those college bound students faired when they reached the university level. I have been told by many of my former students that what I have taught them in the classroom has prepared them for the collegiate level and beyond. I think that is more important than any score I would receive on a standardized test. Is a test really going to show how well we teach and what kind of a teacher we really are?

  22. Let me get this straight. In Rise of the Creative Class, Richard Florida talks about this creative class of people who require greater tolerance, more independence, etc… The world of education is moving away from this in many respects. Teachers used to close their doors and reign supreme over their space. Intelligent people stuck around because they had a great deal of creative control. As “accountability” rises, creative control declines. Many people leave teaching for this reason.

    What can we do about it? Hire intelligent people, create retention strategies (rather than simply retaining most senior people), create incentive programs to reward success, and give teachers more creative control over their classrooms. This is not union bashing. Everyone shares the blame on this.

    I also wonder why we, as Bill mentioned above, expect teachers to stick around for 30 years, while everyone else is moving jobs at a record rate. Perhaps we need to start thinking about how we transition people in and out of teaching as a part of their career, not as their entire career.

  23. @Scott: The older the data, the more inappropriate it is as a measure of academic ability. This is well-accepted with IQ tests, for example – the score is compared with others in the same age-range, not with the entire population. With that reasoning in mind, I think it’s a bit provocative to use college entrance exam scores as the only data you show in your post about the “brain drain” from the classroom. In my read of the articles you cite, I interpret the authors as being far more reserved in their interpretation of the available data, noting limitations in data availability and suggesting caution in forming inferences based on it. For example, in the Anderson & Carroll DOE study they show that teachers are more likely to earn a graduate degree than non-teachers, and that teachers with a graduate degree are less likely to leave the profession than those with an undergraduate degree. This, to me, is great support for questioning the veracity of the relationship between college entry exam scores and teacher attrition, and exemplifies the significant personal, formal, and professional learning that occurs in college and within the first few years of experience in teaching (and all “leavers” in that study had at least one year of experience in the profession). I suppose that I’m being picky about this data because I worry about the impact on current and prospective teachers from this type of provocation. I don’t think anyone in any profession would want either of these two possibilities: 1 – to think that their academic ability is being reduced to and summarized by a standardized test score (SAT or ACT) they earned in high school; 2 – to think that the longer they stay in the profession, the more “less-academically-able” people they’ll be working with. Especially with regard to point #2, although it *may* be true, I think we’re obliged to use better data to make such a negative critique. My further problem with the use of this data to demonstrate a “brain drain” from the classroom is that there is *so* *much* *more* to being an effective teacher than the (limited) aspects of academic ability indicated by scores on the SAT, ACT, college selectivity, college GPA, Praxis I, Praxis II, or an IQ test. For example, even beyond subject-area expertise, what about being creative and being able to help others be creative? What about the ability to collaborate and to help others to collaborate? What about technology skills and the ability to help others to use technology? My impression is that we’re hoping for these skills to manifest more and more in the classroom over time – but none of them are measured by the above-named instruments … and we’re not citing research in the “brain drain” question that attempts to measure them actively (let alone current academic ability), or to correlate measurements of those important “21st Century Skills” with measures of academic ability (whether old or current). I am an ardent advocate of data-driven policy development, decision making, and education research, but I think we need to be really careful – more so than in this post – when we’re using data to make a point that is critical of those who are currently in the teaching profession and those who are about to enter it. Certainly this provocative writing has herein inspired productive discussion – but I must admit that I have some concern that using what I would describe as very suspect data to make what may in fact be a valid point may actually serve to exacerbate the very problem that you’re writing about and that I think we’re all working to prevent: good teachers leaving the classroom.

  24. Anyone have concerns with enabling an administrator that is supervising the teacher to acually have the responsibility and ability to remove the “not terrible enough to fire” teacher from the classroom? Why do we need a test (new or ancient) to tell us the capability of a teacher. Union types would frown on this to the degree that it may be somewhat subjective, but doesn’t it make sense? If the administrator didn’t keep the high quality people, wouldn’t that jeopardize his/her position over time? Would raising the bar improve the situation where good teachers leave because mediocre teachers stay. If we kept only quality teachers, could we pay them better and expect better return on the investment as other professions would?

  25. I agree with Bill’s question about incentives for teachers to advance and stay in the field. In many states, your main means of advancement is leaving teaching for administration.

    What about systems that support teachers staying in the field? Allowing for master teachers to teach fewer courses and mentor other teachers? Allow for more flexible scheduling like college professors have?

    Our district is one of those that has just for next year approved that new teachers will have 8 years to get their master’s, and has increased the stipend afforded to those with the degree, and has partnered with a local university and PTO to pay part of the costs for teachers to attend. There are steps districts can take to promote and encourage professional growth and to encourage teachers to stay in the field.

    Incentives like sending teachers on tours of other schools, visiting one another’s classrooms, bringing master’s programs to the campus, etc., etc. can all make a difference.

  26. Higher ACT/SAT scores= higher intelligence? I don’t think so. Sometimes, those with higher scores simply know how to take tests. My oldest has a very high IQ, but had to retake her ACT just to get an “acceptable” score. She’s highly intelligent, but bombs tests routinely.

    I, on the other hand, scored very high on the ACT, and left teaching kids to teach teachers. I like to think I am positively impacting students, even though I don’t always work with them face-to-face.

    At any rate, it’s an interesting study, but I’m afraid where its interpretation might lead.

  27. Cross Posted @ Hshawjr – MY THOUGHTS.

    This is an interesting issue to discuss, as a teacher who is leaving the profession, as an active teacher in June, perhaps I have a different perspective than some others?

    I guess I am the maverick in the bunch (as usual), according to my achievement test scores and the results of the studies you cite – I should never leave teaching. Back in the dark ages of the mid ’70s I didn’t even manage to score at total of 1,000 on the SATs, I believe my SAT score was around 950. So I am one of the “very” low score teachers.

    I very strongly believe that test scores do not predict how well a teacher will teach. There are way too many variables in this for that kind of a broad brush statement to be accurate.

    So to me personally, low scores on an achievement test or standardized test are not enough to characterize either student or teachers ability, potential or performance in the classroom or workplace. We rely far too heavily on test scores and don’t do enough to develop the well-rounded individual, we instead have developed a culture of test result elitism.

    How many students do we “loose” to low test scores, and artificial pressures of high school that might otherwise develop differently if nurtured differently? That is why I am such a huge supporter of Web2.0 in the classroom and its ability to individualize instruction for students.

    Many former students and present teachers go beyond the “label” that a low test score might give them. As most of us will agree statistics can be manipulated to state what the presenter wishes to emphasize to support his or her argument or that of the funding source. I haven’t read the studies and won’t before I leave the profession (too many other things going on), so I cannot comment on their validity or specifics or my perspective on their results. But from the comments in Dangerously Irrelevant they appear very biased in one direction?

    Not all low scoring teachers will stay in the profession longer and not all high scoring teachers will leave in under 10 years, and low test score are not in my opinion an accurate projection who or how long they will remain teachers…there are simply too many variables that need to be taken into account for a standardized test score to accurately measure.

    Using test scores in my humble opinion is another way to stereotype people or to setup self-fulfilling prophecies about those being tested, that may or may not be true.

    Harold 🙂

  28. I understand what the study says and I wonder if the more pertinent point isn’t the big picture that so many other people seem to be alluding to. I am new to teaching(5 years) I switched at 35 and teach internationally. On the whole I am disappointed with my colleagues. I find they are much the same as the corporate world. Few people are excellent in their particular jobs. A great company has a great leader who leads by example and instils a strong culture. Naturally the same applies to teaching.
    I would love to hear how many people have worked for good principals and directors. My short experience tells the the most hopeless teachers end up leading, and then they really botch it. Isn’t that the real problem? Oh utopia…

  29. Alfred Massicotte Reply May 20, 2009 at 7:48 am

    I don’t agree with the viewpoint that the people choosing to stay in teaching are stupid. I came to teaching because I wanted to help the students. I am just as frustrated with all the politics and inappropriate decisions that are made concerning education, but I will not quit because the students are my primary concern. I believe that the most intelligent and altruistic teachers stay in education because they are willing to work for the greater good and see teaching as their life’s work rather than money being the focus. I am suspicious of a report that indicates that teachers, who stay in education for their career, must be dullards. These types of reports can be manipulated to give the results that the researcher would like to have.
    There are many variables that contribute or detract from student learning in the classroom; the teacher is certainly one of them. We should also be aware of the preparation of the students, and the willingness of the parents to be involved in their childrens’ education. This is always ignored, and the sole focus in the public domain is the teacher. Intelligence and motivation of the students in the classroom are determining factors when it comes to success in academia. Additionally,teacher union bashing is so routine as to have become, well, boring. The reality is that the teachers’ union cannot protect a teacher who isn’t doing their job and has been written up for not doing the job. The reason that you may have a bad teacher is as simple as the administrator didn’t place a written reprimand in their file.
    Finally, the education model in America allows for the administrators to be mediocre;politics has reared its ugly head. The superintendents lie to the school committees to keep their jobs; the principals and assistant principals become equally adept at lying for the same reason. The school committees are made up of well meaning but ill informed people who haven’t spent one minute teaching; they make decisions impacting thousands of students and teachers without any real knowledge. Education is generally not a top priority for municipalities. In good economic times new programs are allowed to go forth in the schools, but the money dries up in tough economic times, and the good programs are cut. There are many more factors impacting education. America won’t see a commitment by it youth to enter into K-12 education because there isn’t any respect given to the profession because of broad generalizations such as the one that started this blog. I would have thought that educated people would ruminate on a study before agreeing to it, and consensus of results does not make something accurate. We may get consensus that the world is flat, but we should understand that doesn’t make the world flat.


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