School & District Management

New Teachers’ Academic Ability on the Rise, N.Y. Study Shows

By Sarah D. Sparks — March 03, 2015 5 min read
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The academic strength of new teachers has been getting better, not worse, for the last decade, according to a new longitudinal study of educators in New York state.

Moreover, academically strong teachers are becoming more equitably distributed across all public schools—both high- and low-poverty—that serve the Empire State’s 2.7 million public K-12 students.

“We find increasing academic ability of individuals entering teaching,” said Luke C. Miller, a co-author of the study and a research assistant education professor at the University of Virginia, at a research symposium here last month at the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research. “We believe this is a signal that the status of the teaching profession is increasing.”

Mr. Miller and researchers from the University of Albany, Stanford University, North Carolina State University, and the University of Virginia studied administrative data from 1986 to 2010 on New York teachers.

Teacher Scores at Low-, Middle-, High-Poverty Schools

Researchers translated teachers’ average SAT scores into standardized combined math and verbal SAT scores so that the mean score was equal to zero. They then compared the average scores of entering teachers at high-, middle-, and low-poverty schools over a 15-year period. Until 2004, the average entering teacher hired at the poorest schools had below-average combined math and verbal SAT scores, but those scores had increased dramatically by 2010, narrowing the gap with the scores of teachers at the wealthiest schools.

BRIC ARCHIVE

SOURCE: “Who Enters Teaching: Encouraging Evidence That the Status of Teaching Is Improving,” Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research at the American Institutes for Research

The researchers found broad improvements over that time period in the average combined mathematics and language scores on the SAT college-entrance exam for newly certified and newly hired teachers, as well as increases in the selectivity of the colleges to which they were admitted before they were certified. The average teacher hired in New York in 2010 had scores more than 25 percent higher than in 1999, and in New York City alone, the portion of new teachers who scored in the top third of SAT takers nationally rose from about 20 percent in 2000 to nearly 40 percent a decade later.

Not Just a ‘TFA Effect’

Even though students take the SAT before college, researchers use SAT scores as a uniform way to measure the academic strength of teachers from different schools and preparation programs across the state.

The average combined SAT scores of teachers in the poorest 20 percent of schools rose by more than half of a standard deviation from 2000 to 2010, growing more than twice as fast as teachers in the wealthiest 20 percent of schools.

“This is not purely a [Teach for America] effect,” Mr. Miller noted. While New York City public schools do use teachers from alternative-certification programs like TFA and the New York City Teaching Fellows, which tend to recruit students from selective universities, the teachers entering from traditional teacher-preparation programs increased their average performance on the SAT by 17 percent. And overall more teachers hired by districts had attended selective colleges in 2009 than in 2000.

The study builds on 2013 research, which found that the average SAT percentile of U.S. teachers declined from 45 in 1994 to 42 in 2001, but then rose to 50 in 2009. That study, by Daniel Goldhaber, the director of the Center for Education Data & Research at the University of Washington Bothell, and Joseph Walsh, a University of Washington Seattle sociologist, used data from the federal Baccalaureate and Beyond study, but was unable to identify more detailed trends in teachers.

Raising the Bar

In the early 2000s, New York state barred most temporary teaching licenses and tightened criteria for regular licenses. Then, in 2005, new federal rules required all teachers to be “highly qualified,” including having a bachelor’s degree and courses in the content areas they teach.

“We know teachers matter a lot in terms of student achievement,” said Thomas E. Wei, a senior research scientist at the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Evaluation who was not part of the study. He said the need to boost incoming teachers’ academic skills is urgent, both because experienced teachers are retiring, and because recent attempts to improve schools by replacing less effective teachers pose a “bodies problem.”

“Do we have enough bodies in the pool who would be better?” he said.

Teachers in high-need subjects like math and science, and black and Hispanic teachers, had bigger gains in SAT performance than teachers of other subjects and racial backgrounds, though the scores were higher for teachers of all groups.

While Mr. Miller said the improvements suggest teaching is becoming more attractive as a career for top college graduates—who might be top students because of a greater internal drive, and thus might try harder to get teaching jobs once certified—there is also evidence that school districts in many areas have become significantly more choosy in whom they hire.

Careful Hiring

In the New York study, state teachers newly certified in 2010 had scores 9 percent of a standard deviation higher than those certified in 1999, but teachers actually hired by districts in the state in 2010 had scores more than 27 percent of a standard deviation higher, suggesting schools had tighter requirements for new teachers.

“The increased pressure that hiring officials are feeling with regard to all this school and district accountability, that has changed the way they are hiring,” Mr. Miller said. “That is more likely to be driving the increasing gap between hired individuals and teachers certified.”

A separate study by Mr. Goldhaber and his colleagues at the University of Washington found the Spokane public school system boosted not only the value-added effectiveness of its teachers, but also the likelihood that they would stay with the school district, through an intensive screening process for new hires.

In Spokane, would-be teachers are scored on a 21-point rubric to join the district applicant pool, and then screened on a 60-point rubric to be chosen for interviews at individual schools.

As part of an ongoing partnership with the district, the researchers tracked 2,700 teachers applying for 538 positions from 2008-09 through 2012-13, comparing teachers’ ratings on both rubrics to their eventual effectiveness and retention in the district. They used errors in the calculation—times when a reviewer incorrectly added up points on a rubric, for example—to judge whether a candidate’s screening score affected whether or not she or he was hired. The researchers found candidates with higher scores on Spokane’s screening were more likely to be hired and effective both in the district or in other districts if they went elsewhere.

Tennille Jeffries-Simmons, Spokane’s chief human resources officer, said analyzing the screening process has allowed the district to cut hiring time by 25 percent, in part by asking questions on the 60-point rubric earlier in the hiring process and by requiring all letters of recommendation to be confidential.

“Instead of speaking in code about someone’s growth potential ... the administrators can be honest about, ‘Don’t hire this person,’ or ‘This person will likely be where you want them to be in a year or so.’ ”

So far, the screening rubrics do predict how successful teachers will be in at least two areas. Teachers who scored 7 to 8 points higher on the 60-point rubric were 3 percentage points less likely to leave the district, and their students scored higher in both math and reading on state tests.

A version of this article appeared in the March 04, 2015 edition of Education Week as N.Y. Study Finds More Top Students Hired as Teachers

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