Elementary School Teachers: What do they know, and what does it matter?

My post on teacher qualifications got some play, which was fun. However, a wounded comment from a third-grade teacher suggests that some teachers feel I’m dissing their smarts. Likewise, many bloggers bewailed the apparently low intellect revealed by the unimpressive SAT scores for elementary school, special ed, and P. E. teachers.

But the point is the absurd use of misleading data, not teacher smarts. Eduformers want to convince the public that teachers are a great lump of uneducated, overpaid louts. The bigger the gap between the teacher’s task and the SAT scores, the better to convince. The public might not care that fourth grade teachers average 1500 on the SAT, whereas the same score for a calculus teacher would be unsettling. My sole objective was to disaggregate the scores by teacher role and demonstrate the degree to which eduformers distort the data.

I don’t hold non-secondary school teachers’ intellect in contempt. To the extent I have an opinion on their intelligence, I’d say that these teachers are, as a group, far less likely to prep for the SAT, since they aren’t likely to go to competitive schools. Thus their scores probably aren’t at the top of their ability range. SAT scores in the 510-530 range (per section) are perfectly adequate for the broad middle of cognitive tasks, and that’s where elementary school curriculum knowledge sits.

But here’s the real question: how smart do we want elementary teachers to be?

Remember, the evidence linking teacher content knowledge to student achievement is….well, it’s there, but it’s neither as unambiguous or strong a relationship as eduformers like to think.

Remember, too, that SAT scores aside, elementary school teachers have to pass state licensure tests—and in the past ten years, the states have made these tests much tougher. As the ETS report on teacher quality I linked in earlier explicitly links the increasing PRAXIS failure rates with the more rigorous testing burden and says:

During the last decade, policies have been put in place to improve the quality of the teaching force. This study examines changes in SAT scores and college grades for two cohorts of Praxis test takers to determine whether the quality of the teacher pool has improved over an eight-year period. While these are relatively simple and generic measures, each has been associated with teacher quality. The results support the view that the policies are working and have contributed to a stronger cohort of individuals seeking teacher certification.

States have already substantially raised the bar for elementary teachers. Check out, for example, California’s shift from the CBEST and an ed school course sequence to the CSET Multiple Subjects Test.

So, naturally, we saw a huge uptick in new teacher effectiveness, who were much more effective than teachers from the bad old days of the easy Praxis tests. We’ve seen a dramatic increase in test scores from these new teachers. Smarter teachers have already helped thousands of students and all we have to do is wait for the teachers from those bad old days to retire.


Or then, maybe we didn’t.

So tell you what, eduformers. Go do that research. Here’s some ideas:

  1. Teachers who passed the newer, tougher licensure tests are more effective than teachers who didn’t.
  2. Teachers aren’t really passing the newer, tougher, licensure tests and are getting in through loopholes.
  3. The new licensure tests aren’t really tougher.

Go away until you can explain why the tougher standards haven’t made better teachers. Or prove that they did.

Then we can talk about how smart elementary school teachers need to be.

Until then, chew on this Joanne Jacobs’ commenter:

This data supports the observations I’ve always made that academically-oriented teachers prefer to teach the upper grades while the social-emotionally oriented teachers prefer the lower grades.

Because the life of an elementary school teacher isn’t one that academically-oriented people (smart or not) are likely to embrace. Dealing with kids who throw up, cry, occasionally pee their pants, pick their noses, tell potty jokes, and change best friends daily isn’t a picnic. Dealing with these problems effectively might take more empathy than brains.

I am not dismissing the need for competence: math, in particular, seems to be a problem area. But let’s be really sure we haven’t done enough already before we start demanding more.


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4 responses to “Elementary School Teachers: What do they know, and what does it matter?

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