We Need More Testing...Of Our Assumptions

Last month the start of the school year was met by a flurry of articles and blog posts about teacher shortages—their scale, nature, and causes. Many commentators blamed today’s student testing and teacher accountability climate for teacher shortages. In a near-viral Education Week blog, Marc Tucker asked why, amid firings of highly regarded teachers due to poor student performance on tests, never mind teacher layoffs during the recession, it should “surprise us that young people would start to avoid teaching careers like the plague?”

In a letter to the editor of The New York Times, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten wrote, “If you ask teachers why young people are shunning the profession, you’ll get an earful … high-stakes test prep has eclipsed teaching and learning and is sucking the creativity and joy out of classrooms.”

But the truth is we do not know enough about why young people are turning away from teaching or why enrollments at schools of education dropped 30% between 2008-09 and 2012-13.

Even though districts, states, and researchers collect voluminous data on students, there’s virtually none on undergraduate students' attitudes toward the teaching profession and barriers to keeping young people from seriously considering a teaching career. A survey by ACT did find that 5 percent of ACT-takers intend to pursue careers in education, but that percentage was higher five years ago.

As for why the bloom is off the teaching rose, there’s just one research study of young talent and their perspectives on the profession—a 2010 McKinsey & Company market research survey of 1,600 college students, all in the top-third of their classes. Many of these high achievers already planned to go into other fields, and McKinsey wanted to find out which factors about teaching would attract or repel these bright students and how their preferred careers compared to teaching:

  • Salary. Only 17 percent of surveyed college students believed teaching would pay appropriately for their skills and effort compared to 72 percent who believed their preferred careers would. Likewise, 33 percent believed they could support a family on a teacher’s salary, compared to 81 percent in their preferred careers.
  • Work environment. Thirty-three percent of the college students polled saw teaching as offering a well-resourced professional environment, compared to 85 percent in their preferred careers. Similarly, 40 percent believed teaching would provide them with high-quality training and the support needed to improve performance, compared to 80 percent in their preferred careers.
  • Like-minded colleagues. Thirty-nine percent said that teaching attracts the type of people they would want to work with, compared to 77 percent in their preferred careers.

Let’s unpack these survey findings. What type of people do young people want to work with? What does a professional environment mean to them? What type of professional learning or training do they seek in a career? How do current initiatives—such as Teach to Lead, National Board Certification, Teach Plus, America Achieves, and the Teacher Salary Project—appeal to these smart young people contemplating which profession to enter? Are students even aware of these opportunities?

The McKinsey survey did not ask whether bright college students are turned off by the level of student testing or the teacher accountability attached to it.

For that matter, neither do major surveys of those entering the teaching profession.

If over-testing is cutting into student learning time, giving practicing teachers extra cause for worry, and deterring new talent from considering teaching as a career, then research studies should expand on the McKinsey survey to capture the full array of considerations at play when young people decide whether to teach. And education leaders at all levels should complement formal large-scale research with local data collection on their own teacher pipeline.

Earlier this month, Secretary Duncan approved the first round of State Equity Plans. In them, states laid out their strategies for ensuring that students from poor and minority backgrounds would not be shortchanged in their access to effective teachers. A review of the 50 draft state equity plans reveals that all states cited the need to recruit a greater pool of talent to the pipeline but that nary a one has a plan for collecting data on students’ preferences and priorities on the threshold of their careers in—or outside of—teaching.

Rather than assume we know what could make a difference, let’s find out.

Ellen Sherratt is a senior researcher at AIR specializing in teacher compensation, strategic recruitment and retention, and teacher voice. She is the co-deputy director of the Center on Great Teachers and Leaders and President of the Board of the Teacher Salary Project.