Most of the commentary on the paper from this table is taken frames the data as good news: "Teacher quality is improving!" Well, yes. Improving from lousy to mediocre. Let's recall what SAT scores you need to get into the 50%ile: 510 on Critical Reading (Verbal) and 500 on Math. If the median is near the mean in this score distribution, then this table suggests that half of all American teachers scored WORSE than 510/500 on their SATs!!! (By the way, the College Board considers a combined Math/Verbal score of 1050 to be the lower limit for college readiness.)
When I look at this data, I think, "Half of all college-bound high school students are smarter than their teachers." Is this how things should be? Or should teachers actually be smarter than their students?
As the paper notes:
Numerous studies show that student academic success depends in no small part on access to high-quality teachers. Many pundits point to the fact that in the United States, teachers tend not to be drawn from the top of the academic-performance distribution, as is the case in countries with higher student achievement, such as Finland, Korea, and Singapore. And the evidence on the importance of teacher academic proficiency generally suggests that effectiveness in raising student test scores is associated with strong cognitive skills as measured by SAT or licensure test scores, or the competitiveness of the college from which teachers graduate.It also notes that:
Teaching is a female-dominated occupation, and prior to notable gender desegregation in the labor force beginning in the 1960s, the most academically capable female college graduates tended to become teachers. Over the course of the next 35 years, women still made up the vast majority of the teacher workforce, but their academic credentials began to decline. Research by Sean Corcoran, William Evans, and Robert Schwab indicates that the likelihood of a female teacher having been among the highest-scoring 10 percent of high school students on standardized achievement tests fell sharply between 1971 and 2000, from 24 to 11 percent.The teachers that I had in elementary school: Mrs. Hay (K), Mrs. Weiner (1), Mrs. Wood (2), Mrs. Kingsbury (5), and Mrs. Conway (6) were all a lot smarter than their equivalents today. (I had male teachers for 3rd and 4th grade -- both of whom were also probably pretty darn bright; one was what we then called "a bachelor"). If those ladies were in college today, chances are that they would be aiming at law school or medical school, not elementary teaching. Mrs. Conway used to talk with our handwriting teacher, Mrs. Quigley, about the tougher items on the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle.
Why do Teach for America volunteers outperform more experienced teachers? Because they are smarter.
If anyone is serious about improving American schools, the necessary first step is improving the quality of teachers. Training and support won't do enough -- you have to start with the right raw materials. That means that no teacher should be below average in intelligence, and that most should be in the upper quartile.