Increased academic ability of teachers may signal improved quality

“He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.” This phrase, from George Bernard Shaw’s 1903 play Man and Superman, is viewed by many as a criticism of the teaching profession, portraying it as second best. Two new studies might help to refute that criticism.
Research indicates that teacher quality exerts the strongest influence on student achievement, above all other in-school variables. There’s good news for New York State, where a longitudinal study by Luke C. Miller concluded that the college entrance exam scores of teachers entering the profession in the past two decades are on the rise. “We find increasing academic ability of individuals entering teaching,” Miller said. “We believe this is a signal that the status of the teaching profession is changing.”

Raising the bar

Beginning in the late 1990s, New York State implemented policies that targeted the selection of individuals entering the teaching profession with the goal of improving teacher quality. During roughly the same time period, Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores for newly certified and newly hired teachers showed large improvement. Scores in 2010 were more than 25 percent higher than scores in 1999.
A 2013 study by Dan Goldhaber and Joseph Walsh found that the average SAT percentile ranking of U.S. teachers increased from 42 in 2001 to 50 by 2009. They also found that prior to 2009, there was a strong negative relationship between academic ability and the decision to choose a teaching career. By 2009, the relationship was insignificant, suggesting that more academically able college students were preparing to teach.
During this same time period, there has been an increased emphasis on student achievement in federal, state, and local policy, initiated by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). States have increased the requirements to obtain teacher certification to prevent unqualified people from entering the profession and ensure that all core academic subject teachers are highly qualified.
New York was ahead of the curve, implementing these initiatives almost four years before the federal Highly Qualified Teacher provision of NCLB was authorized (January 2002). 

Academic quality rising 

The data from the New York State study shows that the average academic quality of teacher applicants improved from 1999 to 2010. In 1999, 43 percent of newly hired teachers in New York City were in the bottom third of the SAT distribution. By 2010, only 24 percent of newly hired teachers were in the bottom third. Conversely, in 1999, 21 percent of NYC teachers had SAT scores in the top third of the SAT distribution. By 2010, 40 percent were in the top third. The results for New York State are, on average, a softened version of the results for New York City.
So does the implementation of policies to improve teacher quality correlate with the improvement in test scores among new teachers? In other words, is raising the standards for individuals to enter educator programs leading to a higher percentage of academically able individuals included in the test results? Or, can we interpret the gains as evidence that the status of the teaching profession is improving?
New York State’s teacher results are consistent with the implementation policies designed to improve teacher quality. Perhaps raising the bar for individuals entering the teaching profession in other states will bring about similar improvements, with the ultimate goal of increasing student achievement.
—“New Teachers’ Academic Ability on the Rise, N.Y. Study Shows,” by Sarah D. Sparks, Education Week online, March 3, 2015.