How the Coronavirus Crisis May Improve Teacher Quality

The soaring unemployment rate because of the Covid-19 pandemic may improve teacher quality. That’s the conclusion we draw from our study of more than 30,000 Florida teachers and their students. That group included teachers who entered the profession between 1969 and 2009, a period that spanned six recessions.

Our research explores how a dearth of job opportunities in the broader economy affects teacher quality—a key question, as teachers affect student outcomes during school and well into adulthood. It is a timely question as well, since jobseekers are likely to outnumber openings for some time. That may benefit U.S. schools and students in the long run, as we’ve found that individuals who choose to enter the teaching profession during a recession are significantly more effective at raising test scores. Weaker job markets offer a window of opportunity to hire stronger teachers.

The effects are most pronounced in math, where teachers who enter the profession during a labor-market downturn are 0.11 standard deviations more effective than those who start teaching when the economy is strong. That amounts to an additional $770 in lifetime earnings, on average, for each student taught by a teacher entering during a recession, or $13,000 cumulatively over a lifetime for the average class size of 17 students. The good news is that many of these teachers tend to stay in the classroom, providing high-quality teaching for many years to come.

The superior effectiveness of recession teachers does not reflect differences in their observed characteristics or teaching assignments. In comparing teachers who entered the profession during recessions with those who started teaching in better economic times, we find they do not differ significantly by gender, race, or age at career start, nor by the demographic makeup of the schools in which they teach.

The driving factor appears to be occupational choice. Economic downturns temporarily change the supply of potential new teachers, which grows to include adults seeking a more stable source of employment because of a lack of opportunities in other professions. That is why we find that the cohorts of teachers hired during recessions have a large share of exceptionally strong performers. 

With state tax collections in sharp decline, concerns over widespread learning loss due to school closures, and an uncertain return to in-person instruction, school districts face tremendous challenges in the months ahead. These findings suggest at least a hint of a silver lining and point to a strategy to improve teacher quality during good times, as well. Consider the overall labor market and increase pay for new teachers in particular, to attract more effective candidates into the profession.

Choosing the Classroom

The number of people completing teacher-education programs each year has been roughly double the number of newly hired teachers in the United States since at least 1987, when the earliest comprehensive data are available. This implies that at any point in time, there is a large pool of potential teachers nationwide who are eligible to obtain certification immediately, regardless of the rigidity of state certification regimes. It also suggests that for many potential teachers, the key decision about whether to enter the profession occurs when they enter the labor market rather than when they choose a degree program.

To explore how business cycles affect teacher quality, we use a simple framework of self-selection in which individuals choose an occupation based on the benefits they expect to receive in return for their work. The choice in this case is between working in the teaching sector and any other sector—in other words, all other labor-market options for potential teachers. Under typical economic conditions, if ability is valued in both sectors but teaching offers lower returns in terms of pay and prestige, fewer people will choose to become teachers. But when a recession hits, teaching becomes more attractive. Unlike private sector wages, teacher pay is rarely cut during recessions. The pace of hiring typically does not slow. (The Great Recession of 2008 was a notable exception in that regard.) And the job protections afforded teachers by tenure may become more salient in the minds of jobseekers. All this implies that the average ability of people entering the teaching sector during economic downturns may be higher.

Temporary fluctuations in economic conditions are most likely to influence selection into teaching when certification regimes permit as many individuals as possible to enter the profession without completing additional training. Traditionally, U.S. states required an undergraduate or master’s degree from a teacher-preparation program in order to be certified, which likely constrained any short-term supply response. In recent decades, however, shortages of certified teachers in specific subject areas led many states to create alternative teacher-certification programs, which allow adults with at least a bachelor’s degree to begin teaching immediately while completing requirements for certification. As of 2011, 45 states had approved alternative-certification programs, and one in five people completing teacher-preparation programs nationwide did so via an alternate route.

Our study focuses on Florida, where the certification regime is typical of those states that have created alternative entry routes into teaching. The state initially awards professional teaching certificates only to graduates of state-approved teacher-preparation programs who have passed tests of general knowledge, professional education, and the subject area in which they will teach. However, any college graduate may be eligible for a temporary teaching certificate if he or she has completed sufficient coursework or can pass an approved test in the relevant subject area. Such certificates are good for up to three years, allowing any college graduate to enter the teaching profession in Florida (at least temporarily) by passing a single exam.

Florida is not typical in another important way, however, because much of its teaching workforce is from out of state. Demand for new teachers has long outpaced the supply of graduates from local preparation programs; in the 1980s, the state estimated that as many as 45 percent of its new teachers had completed their preparation program outside Florida. More recently, in 2009 some 23 percent of individuals receiving their initial Florida teaching credential were prepared out of state, according to federal estimates. These statistics highlight the extent to which the pool of potential teachers for Florida public schools is national in scope, and therefore apt to be influenced by nationwide, not state-specific, economic conditions.

Data and Method

To measure the effectiveness of individual teachers, we create estimates of their value-added to students’ math and reading performance on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test during the 2000-01 through 2008-09 school years. Such estimates show whether each teacher’s students made more, less, or the same amount of progress in those subjects as their peers assigned to other teachers over the course of a school year. There are certainly dimensions of teacher quality not captured by their value-added to student test scores (see “The Full Measure of a Teacher,” research, Winter 2019). However, the weight of the evidence indicates that value-added estimates do capture important aspects of teacher quality, including their long-term impact on student success and wellbeing (see “Great Teaching,” research, Summer 2012).

We limit our sample to teachers in grades 4 and 5 who can be confidently associated with students’ test-score gains. We chose fourth- and fifth-grade teachers because these teachers typically teach all subjects, and we only include student-teacher pairs if the teacher accounts for at least 80 percent of the student’s total instruction time. This yields a total of roughly 32,600 teachers, 5,200 of whom entered the profession during a recession.

Our data also include information on teachers’ demographics and years of experience. We use the latter to estimate a teacher’s career start year by subtracting her total years of experience from the year she is observed in the classroom. Approximately 42 percent of the teachers in our sample started their careers during the study period; the other 58 percent were already working in the classroom.

To identify which career-entry years occurred during recessions, we look to the National Bureau of Economic Research. The bureau defines a recession not in strict quantitative terms, but as “a period between a peak and a trough” based on gross domestic product, employment, and income data. Using that definition, over the past four decades we find six recessions and eight cohorts of teachers who started their careers during a recession. For example, teachers starting their careers during the 1990-91 school year are classified as having entered during a recession, because the bureau dates the economic downturn of the early 1990s to have occurred between July 1990 (peak) and March 1991 (trough).

In addition, we also look at other indicators of weak economic conditions, such as changes in gross domestic product and various unemployment measures, which are highly correlated with the bureau’s defined periods of recession. Our data also include the demographic and educational characteristics of each student such as gender, race, free or reduced-price lunch eligibility, limited English proficiency status, and special education status. We use this information to adjust our estimates of teachers’ value-added estimates for the demographic makeup of their students.

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