Teacher Quality Pseudofacts, Part I

Lurking right behind the teacher pay debate lies the teacher quality debate–well, maybe not so much lurking behind as jumping right out in front of teacher pay and telling it to back off and get lost.

In the intro of the Room for Debate on teacher pay (linked above), the NY Times says,

In the private sector, people with SAT and GRE scores comparable to those of education majors earn less than teachers do. Does that mean teachers are overpaid? Or that public schools should pay more to attract top applicants who tend to go into higher-paying professions? (Emphasis mine).

I have no opinion about teacher pay….wait, that’s not true. I think teacher pay is about right. I think pensions are high, although teacher pensions aren’t nearly as egregious as those of public safety workers. But I don’t get particularly worked up about it, because after all the yelling and screaming is over, I’m pretty sure that everyone will realize that teacher pay, like Churchill’s democracy, is the worst method of teacher compensation except all the other methods we could try (I’ll get into those some other time).

I am extremely annoyed, however, by the bogus factoids the eduformers fling about in either ignorance or deception and the progressives’ determined refusal to refute this pseudodata due to their own ideological blinkers.

Jason Richwine and Andrew Biggs regurgitate the usual suspects in their teacher compensation study:

Students who indicated that education was their intended major earned a combined math and verbal score of 967, about 0.31 standard deviations below the average of 1,017, meaning the 38th percentile in a standard normal distribution. In contrast, students intending to major in engineering had average combined SAT scores of 1,118….College graduates who take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) also indicate their intended field of study when they sit for the test. During the past academic year, students who planned to study elementary or secondary education in graduate school scored 0.13 standard deviations below average on the GRE. If all education-related fields are counted—including special
education, early childhood education, and curriculum development—the difference was 0.35 standard deviations

In other words, the charge is (1) undergraduate education majors have very low SAT averages and (2) graduate education students have low GRE averages. An undergraduate education major is the primary entry point for elementary school teachers, PE teachers, and special education teachers. Secondary school teachers in academic subjects are far more likely to get a degree in their major and then get a post-graduate credential or a M.Ed.

I’m going to take point 2 first. Notice that the authors conflate elementary and secondary teachers. Everyone else does, too. Because there’s no difference in the cognitive demands of teaching kindergarten or trigonometry, first grade math or biology, fourth grade science or AP US History. None at all.

In fact, secondary teachers have much higher GRE scores than elementary school teachers. The Educational Testing Service reports the GRE scores of all graduate schools by broad area of specialization. Ed school candidates are broken down by secondary, elementary, curriculum, special ed, and other minor categories. (I’ve rearranged the rows to fit it all on one image–click to get full size or check out the data in the report).

GRE mean scores for all testers in 2008-2009 were 462 for Verbal, 584 for Math.

Break the GRE scores into two categories, and you get a very different picture. Elementary/middle school teachers are dragging the average down. The elementary school teacher mean verbal score is 437, nearly 30 points below the mean for all testers. 70% of all candidates score lower than 500 on the verbal. The average math score is 520, 64 points below the mean for all testers; however, the scores are distributed close to normally throughout the score range, unlike the verbal scores. (High verbal GRE scores are extremely rare. Anything over 700 is in the top 2%; anything over 600 is, I think, top 10%.)

Secondary school teacher mean verbal score is 485, 20 points above the mean for all testers. Their average math score is 579, 5 points below the mean.

But remember, please, that secondary school teacher scores are all lumped together. English and history teachers don’t really need sterling math scores, and math and science teachers don’t need spectacular verbal scores. Remember, too, that ed schools turn out four or five English and history teachers for every 1 science or math teacher, roughly. 20% of all secondary teachers get 700 or higher on the math GRE; another 27% get 600-690.

I suppose it’s possible that all the English and history teachers are knocking out high 750 scores on the GRE math test. Or–and this is just a suggestion– secondary math and science ed school candidates have GRE scores comparable with other science and math grad school entrants.

If eduformers were genuinely interested in evaluating teacher quality, they’d see if ETS has any further categorization on secondary teachers. You know, just to make sure that those crack English teacher mathematicians aren’t beating out the wimpy, underqualified math teachers struggling to explain algebra.

This isn’t newss. ETS reports regularly on teacher quality. In a report full of useful graphics and stats proving this point comes this informative little tidbit, repeated several times:

Academic profiles continue to be markedly different for secondary school subject matter teachers in contrast with elementary, special education, and physical education teachers. Those with secondary
licenses have much stronger academic histories. (page 3)
The relative profile across licensing areas has remained steady. Those licensed in secondary subject areas continue to have verbal SAT scores at least as strong as those of national college graduates who took the SAT. Math SAT scores for those licensed in mathematics and science are well above those for other college graduates. Profiles are markedly different for secondary subject teachers in contrast to elementary, special education, and physical education teachers. (page 20)

These data also indicate that cohort gains in SAT scores are likely to be even more substantial than previously described, especially for secondary subject teachers. When the data are examined separately for middle-school and secondary subject test takers, the net improvements are even greater than previously presented. Figure 22 shows that the SAT-Math scores for those who took the secondary subject tests actually increased by 35 points from the earlier cohort. Secondary subject test takers licensed in English had SAT-Verbal scores that were 13 points higher than those of the earlier cohort. (page 26)

Individuals taking the middle-school tests have far less academic preparation in specific content areas than those seeking secondary subject licensure. The profile of test takers for middle-school licensure more closely resembles that of elementary generalists than of secondary subject teachers. (page 27)

..those with secondary subject licenses continue to be an academically strong group whose SAT scores and GPAs have grown stronger over time.

The report, which reviews data on 20 states and DC, stresses that elementary school teacher qualifications have improved tremendously, but I’ll get to that in part 2.

Those screaming for improved teacher qualifications have nothing in their arsenal when it comes to secondary teachers. I suspect they know that, which is why Richwine, Biggs, and everyone else conflates the scores and ignores Praxis data. But maybe they aren’t lying. Maybe they’re just ignorant.

Next up: Elementary and middle school qualifications, what they mean, what’s been done, and what hasn’t happened. Also, my speculations on why progressives don’t point out these obvious rebuttals.

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5 responses to “Teacher Quality Pseudofacts, Part I

  • Julia Moravcsik

    Good point about conflating elementary educators and secondary educators. Here is an article that you might be interested in http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/seind02/c1/c1s5.htm

    However, one would think that secondary educators SHOULD indeed have high SAT scores in the fields that they’re teaching. After all, a high school teacher might be teaching classes that are basically at a college level!

    There is still the question of “Are their SAT scores high enough for their profession?”. Comparing with “the average college graduate” is not really the best comparison here. The average college graduate doesn’t teach almost-adult-age kids advanced concepts.

    • educationrealist

      Well, the call is for us taking the “top third” of the college population, which is judged based on the average college graduate. One would assume that the average college graduate understands the fundamentals of a first year college course (a dangerous assumption, but still).

      It appears that we are taking secondary school teachers from the 50-75th percentile of all college graduates and to argue that’s not high enough is to have a pretty foggy notion of what’s involved in teaching.

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