Teaching Profession

High-Achieving Students Don’t Want to Be Teachers. What Can Change Their Minds?

By Madeline Will — October 19, 2017 4 min read
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Who wants to become a teacher? Around the world, students who want to go into teaching tend to have poorer math and reading skills than students who plan to work as professionals outside of teaching.

This is according to a new analysis of 2006 Program for Internatonal Student Assessment survey data of 15 year olds. On average, around 44 percent of students in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries said they expect to work in professions that require a university degree—but only 5 percent of students expected to work as teachers.

The United States is below the OECD average—52 percent of students expected to work in professions that require a university degree, but about 4 percent of students expected to work as teachers. (Click on graph to expand.)

The paper focused on mathematics ability because of policy concerns about the need to attract people who are skilled at math into teacher training programs. (Also, reading performance data from the United States was excluded from the analyses due to a 2006 printing error that invalidated the U.S. results.)

Researchers chose the 2006 data set to analyze because the 2009 and 2012 PISA surveys did not ask students about their expected occupation, but it’s worth noting that the past nine years have brought policy changes that might affect these results today. (However, more recent surveys and data show similar trend lines.)

According to the analysis, only in a few countries do high-achieving students want to be teachers. In a majority of OECD countries, students who are strong in math are more likely to prefer a non-teaching profession.

In the United States, there is no difference in PISA math scores between a student who wants to be a teacher and a student who wants to be a professional, but not a teacher. However, the average PISA math score among students who expect to work as teachers in the United States is lower than the OECD average PISA math score for aspiring teachers.

These results are in line with a 2016 ACT survey of U.S. high school graduates who took its college-entrance exam, which found that only 4 percent of the class of 2015 said they planned to become teachers, counselors, or administrators. The students who took the ACT and said they aspired to be educators were particularly weak in math and science.

What can change high-achieving students’ minds? Seong Won Han, an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy at the University at Buffalo and one of the authors of the report, said increasing teacher pay would be an important motivator—but mostly for low- or middle-achieving students.

“The key thing is that teacher salary might not be enough incentive to recruit high-achieving students to the teaching profession,” she said. “Probably, low-achieving students tend to have a smaller set of occupational options, and teaching is more of a fall-back option.”

For high-achieving students, “they know they can be successful in STEM and high-status professional jobs. ... Salary might not be a driving force.”

Instead, she said, those top performers might better respond to increased societal value of the profession.

“Think about high-achieving students, they have a lot of job options they can choose,” she said. “If they choose teaching, they believe children’s development is more important than anything else.”

In the United States, teacher salaries are lower than in other countries, and teachers here work more hours. These are important factors, to be sure, but Han said policy initiatives shouldn’t rest on those two areas.

“The change to external work environment might not be enough incentive for students who are strong in math to become a teacher in the future,” Han said. “In this country, teaching is not highly valued.”

This sentiment—that teaching in the United States is a “second-choice profession"—is not new. My colleague Stephen Sawchuk wrote in 2012 about efforts to boost the prestige of the teaching profession in the United States, and how it stacks up to perceptions in countries like Finland, where “teaching is a similar career to a lawyer or a medical doctor,” as one teacher prep director put it.

See also: ‘Don’t Become a Teacher': A History

Only 34 percent of teachers in the United States think that the teaching profession is valued in society, according to OECD data. That is lower than other countries, Han said—like Singapore, where 68 percent of teachers said their profession was valued.

A recent report by education researcher Linda Darling-Hammond found that high-performing countries, including Singapore and Finland, have a high social regard for teaching and, in turn, are able to recruit, develop, and support high-quality teachers. According to the PISA data analysis, 31 percent of Finnish youth expect to be college-educated professionals, and about 3 percent expect to be teachers. But those Finnish students who expect to be teachers have higher reading scores than Finnish students who want to work in another profession, and there is no difference between the two groups’ math scores.

“We should think about how we’re going to change the view of the teaching profession in general,” Han said about the United States. “Part of it is raising salary and reducing work hours—that’s going to be part of it. But that’s not enough to change students’ teaching career expectations.”

Some states and districts have looked to high schoolers as a potential solution for teacher shortages. Interested students take classes that seek to guide them into the teacher pipeline through generating enthusiasm, encouraging innovation, and providing support.

Still, Han cautioned that it will take a long time to change societal perceptions of teaching.

“We cannot change it overnight,” she said.

Image: Courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

Graph: Courtesy of the PISA in Focus policy brief

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.