An Upside of Recession?

The quality of new teachers rises when the job market shrinks, new research suggests

August 3, 2015
An Upside of Recession?

What’s the connection between teacher pay and teacher quality? One novel way to look at the question is to track the choices that job candidates make when they’re in a robust — or a moribund — hiring market and then see how they do. A new working paper [PDF] by HGSE Associate Professor Martin West and colleagues does just that, and the findings suggest that when the overall prospects for job seekers are limited, more effective teachers make their way into the classroom.

In the paper, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), West and his colleagues Markus Nagler and Marc Piopiunik analyzed how selection into the teaching profession changes in times of recession. They wanted to see how competing job options affect the market for teachers; does the scarcity of jobs draw in higher-skilled applicants, some of whom might be lost to presumably better-paying jobs in a better market?

The Research

The researchers assessed teacher quality by looking at value-added measures of teacher impact on student test scores between the 2000–01 and 2008–09 school years. They drew on data for 33,000 fourth- and fifth-grade teachers in Florida public schools, measuring impact on students’ test scores in math and reading. They then related value-added indicators to business cycle indicators derived from NBER and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Their conclusion? Teachers entering the profession during recessions — and those entering when unemployment rates were high — were significantly more effective in raising student test scores than teachers entering at other times. The results showed that recession-era teacher hires were strikingly successful in raising math scores; reading scores also improved in these teachers’ classrooms, though less than half the amount that math scores did.

The Takeaway

It’s the first causal evidence that alternative job opportunities make a difference for teacher effectiveness, the authors say. “These findings represent the strongest evidence to date that improving teacher compensation relative to other jobs would improve teacher quality by attracting more capable people into the classroom,” says West.

The policy implications, in theory, are significant, West adds. In addition to the idea that raising the economic benefits of being a teacher could improve the quality of the teaching workforce, the results also suggest one upside to recessions: they may provide a window of opportunity for school districts to recruit strong teachers who might otherwise have chosen a different career path.

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