Why Our Smartest Students Don't Become Teachers

February 21st 2015

Alex Mierjeski

Recently, we reported on a seven-decade-long trend in the way statistically smart Americans choose their college majors, and how it reflects what we tend to value as a culture.

In five different aptitude tests from different decades, Duke University researcher Jonathan Wai found that since 1946, students who score the highest on standardized tests have tended to study in the same field of disciplines­ down the road––science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM majors.

Wai posits that this larger academic arc holds some deeper truths about the way our society values not just intelligence, but the way in which it’s applied. Smarter students go on to work in STEM fields. This means STEM's societal worth is ultimately reflected both in student interest as well as big paychecks. In fact, on average, STEM majors earn more than four times as much as their non-STEM peers, according to a Department of Education report.

But the concern reaches much deeper than the salary gap. Wai also found that since those early tests, people who choose to study education––the bulk of which go on to become teachers––are almost always at the lowest rungs of measured aptitudes. Though empirically, our nation’s teachers far from being the roving bunch of dimwits, Wai’s findings might suggest there are some troubling numbers to consider.

When it comes to education, the United States is consistently ranked lower on the scale of industrialized nations than most Americans would like. Indeed, since the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) began tracking the academic aptitudes of 15-year-olds all over the world, U.S. students’ scores in reading, math, and science have remained more or less stagnant (the latest PISA report was released in 2013).

So American students can’t do long division as quickly, what’s the big deal?

Depressed, stagnant education performance doesn’t only impact reputations. As the race of the global economy plods ahead, the U.S. is lagging behind as countries traditionally behind our education system, such as Italy or Portugal, have reformed and are catching up. Belgium, Estonia, Germany, Ireland, and Poland also have improved and now surpass the U.S. In the long run, this could spell trouble for the U.S. economy. 

Some have pushed back against the notion that PISA and other standardized tests represent true markers of student achievement, but they nonetheless highlight the need for education reform in this country. With an eye on top-performing countries like Finland, Singapore, and South Korea, who pull their teachers exclusively from the top third of the academic strata, some suggest the U.S. follow suit and shake up its hiring standards.

How to get the smartest students to go into teaching.

In a 2010 report, researchers from McKinsey & Company examined this question and proposed mimicking not only teaching standards of tops countries, but also the “value proposition” of teaching in order to court skilled students. As opposed to the “top third+” strategy used in countries with stellar education, in the U.S., the report notes that only “23% of new teachers come from the top third [academic cohort], and just 14% in high poverty schools, which find it especially difficult to attract and retain talented teachers.”

Top-performing countries have a number of ways of securing the best minds for teaching. Not only in Finland, Singapore, and South Korea do officials “view the caliber of young [people] they draw to teaching as a critical national priority,” but they pay tuition and fees, giving students salaries or stipends as added incentive.

Economic perks aside, teacher training programs are rigorous and “highly selective,” according to the report. Moreover, government monitoring ensures that supply meets demand, so to speak. Teachers accepted into programs are guaranteed jobs and offered competitive compensation, “so that the financial rewards from teaching suffice to attract and retain top third students given the dynamics of these nations’ labor markets.” All of that, plus “enormous social prestige,” researchers found, attracts top students to teaching.

So can the U.S. realistically hope to adapt similar frameworks to guarantee “teacher effectiveness” in hopes of bolstering its global standing?

Hopefuls will point to the Massachusetts example as proof that yes, pointed reforms can work. After Gov. Bill Weld signed the Education Reform Act in 1993, student performance surged: 90 percent passed MCAS; SAT scores rose consecutively for 13 years, and students would rank at the top of national averages.

Jan Rivkin, a chair of a project on U.S. competitiveness at Harvard, told NPR that strategies that lean towards investing more in education programs and teacher quality can produce good results. “The success in Massachusetts, I think shows the power of finding a coherent strategy. Here, we’ve raised standards, we’ve provided greater support, we’ve invested deeply in the quality of teaching. And we in Massachusetts have stuck to that for decades, and that shows up in the results over time,” she said.

On a state-by-state level, the Massachusetts example bodes well. But clunky federal standards would need to follow suit, and the path to meaningful reform, it turns out, is rife with barriers. As opposed to the single, rigorous teacher education program in Singapore and Finland, the U.S., characteristically, has more than 1,500 with varying levels of quality. And while organizations like Teach for America choose top graduates for their “fast-track” programs, critics push back against the very notion of such programs, which tend to bring students into teaching for a short period before they go onto careers elsewhere.

Any meaningful reform will necessarily be multi-faceted, complex, and prickly. But with proposals with scale, such as President Obama’s tuition-free community college program, incremental steps that take cues from statistically successful models don’t seem so farfetched. Experts have pointed out that initiatives with a singular focus are not enough to drag an education system out of the lake. But for the time being in our gridlocked political system, selectively following the lead of bastions of success could deliver results.