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Study: Weak Job Market Produces Strong Teachers

U.S. Department of Education

A new study from the Harvard University School of Education reports teachers in Florida who are hired during an economic slowdown become better teachers.

“This was a study that was conducted prior to the onset of the pandemic and was not meant to anticipate what’s happening now,” said Marty West, a professor of Education at Harvard University and the editor in chief of the journal Education Next. He is one of the authors of an article appearing in the journal called “How the Coronavirus Crisis May Improve Teacher Quality: Recession Hiring Boosts Teacher Quality and Student Learning."

“This was a study of how alternative job opportunities affect the quality of teachers that enter the profession, and by extension, whether making teaching more attractive compared to alternative jobs would improve teacher quality," said Dr. West. "What our results imply is that teaching becomes more attractive to job seekers what a recession hits. And I believe that reflects the fact that teaching is not entirely sheltered from the economic impact of a recession, but (is) relatively sheltered compared to other areas of the economy. So unlike private sector wages, teacher pay is rarely cut during a recession,  the pace of hiring typically doesn’t slow, and the protections afforded by teacher tenure may become more (attractive) in the minds of potential job seekers.”

The authors measured the effectiveness of close to 33,000 Florida teachers, 5,200 of whom entered the profession during a recession, using their students’ math and reading scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

“And then we compared the effectiveness of those who started their careers during a recession to those who started when the economy was strong. And we found a very clear pattern by which teacher who start their career during a recession are significantly more effective at raising students’ test scores compared to those who entered the classroom during better economic times. This wasn’t just a story about the Great Recession of 2008, that same pattern appears all the way back to the recessions of the 1970s and the early 1980s. So, the bottom line is that weaker job markets seem to offer a window of opportunity for school districts to hire stronger teachers.”

Dr. West says they decided to study Florida teachers because the state has been on the forefront of putting together administrative data sets that allow researchers to study questions of teacher effectiveness, at least when it comes to affecting test scores.

“Florida is also an interesting state in that it really does hire its teachers from a national labor market. Throughout the period that we were studying we had rapid growth in student enrollment in Florida, and that’s meant that Florida has been importing teachers. So it makes sense that it would be influenced by what’s going on nationally.”

That’s not to say that in good economic times school districts around the country are hurting for good teaching talent. Dr. West believes any teacher shortages are specific to certain areas of the country. There are also certain subject areas where finding top notch teachers in good times can be a challenge.

“Like math and science where those teachers who are qualified can have better opportunities outside of education.”

The article also points out that when people become teachers during an economic downturn, for the most part they stay in the profession when times get better.

“That’s one of the most interesting aspects of our results. We don’t find any evidence that those who (become teachers) during a recession are less likely to stick around. Do despite the fact that our results suggest that there are some teachers who only considered profession because of the economic conditions when they made their career choice, they are as likely to remain. Now, not all of them do. We know that there is a fairly high rate of attrition from teaching in general. But that rate of attrition doesn’t seem to be any higher for those who entered (the profession) during a recession.”

And while the effects on students’ performance are not increased by a large margin by these teachers, even a small boost in classroom performance can have a real effect.

“Even small difference in the average effectiveness of teachers can add up considering the number of students a given teach instructs in the course of a career. One way we try to speak to that in the paper is by looking at other research conducted elsewhere that has quantified the benefits to students of being assigned to a teacher who is particularly effective in raising test scores in terms of their lifetime earnings. So drawing on that research we project that the effect of being assigned to the average teacher who entered during a recession is to increase the lifetime earnings of a classroom of students that that teacher instructs in a single year by about $13,000.”

As for the current situation, Dr. West says the combination of an economic slowdown during a pandemic is unique and hasn’t been studied, but it will be. The article by Professor West and his co-authors is available on line now, and will be in the fall 2020 print edition of the Kennedy School’s Journal "Education Next."