Do Better Students Make Better Teachers?

By Patrick Emerson
Oregon Economics Blog

On Sunday, The Oregonian published a massively long op-ed piece by two McKinsey consultants arguing that the US has a big problem in the fact that out very top students are not going into teaching (K-12). They spend a long time describing how poor the US is at attracting top college students to go into teaching relative to other countries that have top performing education systems. They spend a long time discussing the ways that the US could go about fixing this problem and how it is not a daunting as it seems.

But throughout the entire article is the assumption, left unexamined until the last paragraph despite its massive length, that better students make better teachers. The problem with this is that the answer appears to be no.

Here is a passage from a New York Times Magazine article on what makes a good teacher:

But what makes a good teacher? There have been many quests for the one essential trait, and they have all come up empty-handed. Among the factors that do not predict whether a teacher will succeed: a graduate-school degree, a high score on the SAT, an extroverted personality, politeness, confidence, warmth, enthusiasm and having passed the teacher-certification exam on the first try.

This is a pretty good summary of the (good) evidence: things that we can observe about teachers (where they went to school, their certifications, their academic success) are not good predictors of being effective teachers in the classroom.

Particularly gauling is the last paragraph of the Oregonian Op-Ed which finally gets around to trying to make the case that recruiting better students is critical to improve educational performance:

Some U.S. researchers say there’s little evidence that teachers with stronger academic backgrounds produce higher student achievement, but this conclusion is starkly at odds with the experiences of Singapore, Finland and South Korea. Our McKinsey colleagues have studied more than 50 school systems around the world and have never seen a nation achieve or sustain world-class educational performance without drawing its teachers from the top third of their class. Should we really bet our children’s future on the possibility that our country might be the exception?

Er…those ‘some U.S. researchers’ are the ones that very carefully try and isolate the causal link. Unlike McKinsey and Co. that appears to have no concept of the problem confusing correlation with causality. We don’t know the counterfactual and cannot, I repeat, CANNOT make any causal statement about the effectiveness of teachers from this observed correlation.

Okay now that I have vented, what interests me even more than the bad scholarship is the essential question this raises: do we really want our best and brightest becoming K-12 teachers? I am not sure it takes a person with an amazing aptitude for astro-physics to teach a second grader how to add. I think I’d rather have the astro-physics prodigy go off and do astro-physics. Or a talented biologist teaching kids about chrysalis instead of finding a cure for cancer. Or a exceptional engineer teaching Phys. Ed. rather than solving the energy problem. In other words, rather than viewing the current state of affairs in US education as a failure, it is quite possible that this represents a strength of how free labor markets are in the country. Perhaps we have the comparative advantage equation all figured out – channeling talent where it is relatively most effective (okay, if we ignore investment bankers).

This is likely to be seen as provocative, but as an economist I don’t see it that way, when I think about my own kids, I am not sure it matters to me if their grade school teachers scored 800 on the math section of the SAT, but it matter a lot to me if they can connect with students, adjust to their different needs and inspire them. And, by the way, I am the son of a public high school english teacher who went to Stanford and is pretty damn smart, so I am not dismissing intelligence, rather making a case for other attributes that may matter as much or more.

And the every widening skill premium accounts for some of what has been the declining relative pay for teachers. With all the productivity enhancing technology out in the world the difference between productivity in areas where technology makes a big impact and areas where it doesn’t (teaching) means that relative returns are going to diverge (see: cost disease). This is true for my profession as well – economists in the private sector have wage gains that far exceed those of us that chose education.

By the way, that NY Times Magazine article is about whether we can make good and effective teachers or are some people just born to be good and we can’t do much. It is very interesting and I don’t know the answer, but I suspect that both are important. Good training can make anyone better but some have a knack and some don’t. Which again to an economist is not a mark of shame, but simply a skill/requirement mismatch.

This is the lesson of comparative advantage: we are all relatively good at something.

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