Is teaching drawing in more talent?

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A spate of analyses in recent years questioned the academic qualifications of aspiring teachers. In 2007, the Educational Testing Service showed that the average special education and elementary teacher had lower SAT scores compared to other majors. Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa's Academically Adrift found that education majors fared poorly on the Collegiate Learning Assessment. These points were further by our own Teacher Prep Review, which revealed shockingly low academic expectations for prospective teachers.

New research from Dan Goldhaber and Joe Walch suggests that perhaps the tide is turning. Their recent report, Gains in Teacher Quality, confirms findings that prospective teachers' SAT/ACT scores lagged behind their classmates in the 1990s and early 2000s, but shows that the gap was entirely closed by 2008. Unfortunately, more recent data, which could help us determine whether Goldhaber's and Walch's finding is the beginning of a trend or an aberration, is not yet available.

While encouraging, this report should not leave us complacent. An average score on the ACT doesn't actually mean that someone is college-ready. What's more, high-performing countries like Finland and Singapore routinely attract their best and brightest into teaching; average isn't good enough for their kids, and nor should it be for ours.

A frequently cited concern about raising the academic standards for prospective teachers is that doing so will hamper efforts to diversify the teaching profession. Another recent report by the Illinois Education Research Council on the academic qualifications of teachers in Illinois in 2002-03 suggests that the issue is considerably more complicated. True enough, the racial achievement gap means that fewer minority high school students go on to four-year colleges and score well on the ACT. But the report also shows that relatively few minority high school students aspire to go into teaching in the first place and few minority college students become certified to teach. High-achieving minority college graduates are the least likely group to get certified.

Diversifying the teacher workforce will require efforts all along the pipeline. But the IERC report suggests that making teaching more enticing -- perhaps by raising its status by raising admissions standards -- could have a salutary effect as well.