Where do teachers come from?

12/13/2011 11:02 am ET | Updated Feb 12, 2012
  • John Merrow Education Correspondent, PBS NewsHour; Author, 'The Influence of Teachers'

One benefit to my being a reporter is the opportunity to spend time with people who know more than I do. I had breakfast recently with Marshall "Mike" Smith, the Undersecretary of Education in the Clinton Administration, and our conversation inspired this blog post.

The assertion that our teachers come from 'the bottom third' has been in the air for some time. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg seems to believe matters are worse than that, because he recently told a press conference that most came from the bottom 20 percent of college graduates.

In a recent post, Matthew Di Carlo of the Shanker Institute provided a credible analysis of the studies that seem to be the basis for the claim. Di Carlo says that two studies by McKinsey & Company provide the underpinnings for the assertion, and I suggest you read his analysis. One of the McKinsey reports asserts that almost 50% of US teachers come from the bottom third of college graduates, as defined by SAT scores (Other studies have debunked any link between SAT scores and teaching effectiveness, but that's another story).

The data in these two reports have taken on a life of their own. For example, The Christian Science Monitor editorialized on March 17: "For starters, the United States needs to increase its pool of quality teachers. Almost half of its K-12 teachers come from the bottom third of college classes. Classroom leaders such as Singapore, South Korea, and Finland select from the top ranks. In Finland, only 1 in 10 applicants is accepted into teacher training."

But even if most teachers come from the bottom two-thirds of college graduates, just what does that mean? Let's do the math.

Begin with 100 eighth graders. After seven years (not five), how many will have earned high school diplomas or an equivalency degree?

Let's be generous and say that 88 of 100 will have that credential.

Of those 88, how many will continue on with their education? Suppose 65 go on to a 4-year or a 2-year institution. After six years (not four), how many will have earned a 4-year degree and thus possibly be eligible for a teaching position?

Again, let's be generous and say that 32 of 100 will have earned degrees.

That's the group we draw our teachers from, and that suggests that our teachers come from the top 32% of our population, even if they are not at the top of that particular pyramid.

So our teachers come from an elite group -- college graduates -- to begin with. Where they rank within this elite is the issue, and it's simply unfair to suggest that a large group of people in the top third is somehow fundamentally flawed.

Why does this matter? Precisely because one proposed 'solution' to our education crisis is 'better people.'

Could teacher training be improved? Could working conditions be improved? Could starting salaries and the bizarre compensation system that back-loads rewards be improved? Yes, yes and most definitely yes.

Let's devote our energies to real problems and their solutions, not to ad hominem attacks on an entire profession.


Quick programming note: if you're in or around New York tomorrow evening (Dec. 14), I'll be appearing live in conversation with Randi Weingarten of the AFT. Here are some details. I'd love to see some of you there.

And of course, if interested in the above topics of teacher quality and training, I suggest you consult the Learning Matters site here and here. We produced a piece recently presenting some numbers about the teaching profession in quiz format; you can view that below (it's great if you're a wonk).