TQB: Teacher Quality Bulletin

Economic Downturns May Come with an Unexpected Upside

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When most companies are handing out more pink slips than paychecks, getting a job in teaching starts to look awfully attractive—including to people who hadn't initially planned on a career in the classroom. But a teaching degree may not seem as good an option to those seeking challenging and lucrative careers.

Looking at recessions dating back to the 1970s, a new study from Markus Nagler, Marc Piopunik and Martin West found that teachers who begin their careers during recessions were more effective than teachers who begin teaching at other points in the economic cycle. 

Using the value-added scores of Florida teachers (where a teaching degree isn't required to enter the classroom), they found that teachers starting their careers during a recession were, on average, better at raising their students' math and reading scores than teachers who began teaching in a stronger economy. The effect was evident across teachers at all levels of ability, but particularly striking was that the effectiveness of top teachers outpaced the top performers of non-recession years by an even greater margin. The trend toward more effective teaching was more pronounced for men than women, minorities compared to whites, and those who were older when starting to teach compared to those who were younger. 

What might cause this pattern? The authors suspected that the effect came from a group of people entering teaching who otherwise would not have. People choose their careers based largely on expected earnings. In a recession, teaching appears better-paid and more stable than many other jobs, so as other job prospects shrink, teaching looks more and more attractive. The improvements in test scores were visible for teachers entering in most recessions since 1970. The pattern held even in the Great Recession of 2008, when teacher layoffs occurred but were far rarer than private sector layoffs. The fact that teachers who enter during recessions are higher performing gives credence to the theory that highly skilled people who would usually choose another job are more likely to become teachers in such conditions. 

Of course, creating recessions for the sake of raising the quality of the teacher corps isn't sound public policy. Instead, the researchers offered a more feasible lesson: raise teacher pay to attract high-performers into the classroom, even when there aren't layoffs in other fields. While this policy suggestion ignores the appeal of job stability and availability, it fits with the study's compelling case that people do consider how teaching stacks up against other career choices. Moreover, the findings suggest that districts should recognize recessions as potential opportunities to find some great teachers. 

But another recent study complicates the picture. Erica Blom, Brian Cadena and Benjamin Keys found that those who experienced poor economic conditions at age 20 (when they were choosing their college major) were less likely to major in education than those who chose their major in good economic times. The authors suggested that students in recessions will pick majors that they think will lead to high-paying jobs and will be seen as rigorous. Since fewer students choose to major in education at such times, this suggests that it's not perceived as lucrative or challenging (see our findings on the lack of rigor in teacher prep here). 

The two studies are not contradictory—they consider different choices (job vs. college major) and different populations (teachers vs. all undergraduate students). Taken together, they suggest—unsurprisingly—that people consider much more than just their passion for the work itself when choosing a major and a career.