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Bruno: Pay Attention To Big Differences Between High School & Elementary Teachers

6317025278_026fab3ddb_nWhen discussing education reform, it's common to talk about "teachers" - e.g., "teacher quality" or "teacher training" - as if "teachers" are one big, homogeneous group.

In reality, teachers working in different contexts are often systematically different, and this has implications for education policy.

For instance, via Libby Nelson, this nifty interactive chart from Ben Schmidt helps to illustrate that primary and secondary school teachers tend to have significantly different academic backgrounds.

Below the fold, I'll discuss teacher differences in more detail and explain why they might matter for education reform.

Unfortunately, in Schmidt's data elementary and middle school teachers seem to be grouped together, but you can still see that over a quarter of these teachers majored in elementary education, and another 20% or so studied general education. 
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 And remember, that chart combines elementary and middle school teachers. To see how teacher backgrounds change as students get older, here's the chart for just secondary teachers:

click to enlarge

At the secondary level, there are still a fair number of education-related degrees but teachers are much more likely to have majored in subjects - like math or biology - related to the specific courses they teach.

Differences in academic background between teachers have real policy implications.

If, for example, a reform is targeted at improving schools of education, secondary teachers are likely to be less affected as they spend a smaller fraction of their time in education classes.

And if high school teachers are more likely to have majored in a non-education field, they might also be more likely to have skills and abilities that are more marketable outside of education. This may make them more sensitive to policy changes that make teaching more difficult or less desirable.

Relatedly, a new study by Kristine West - an ungated version is here -  finds that high school teachers - but not elementary or middle school teachers - have hourly wages that are significantly lower than other, demographically similar workers.

The reasons for hourly wage gap discrepancies between teachers at different grade levels are likely numerous. West finds that high school teachers seem to work about 12% more hours than elementary teachers, for example. And the aforementioned differences in academic backgrounds may be related as well.

In any case, the upshot is that "public school teacher" is not really job.

Rather, that title captures a number of possible jobs, each of which will attract different sorts of people, involve different sorts of academic preparation, require different types and amounts of work, and entail different opportunity costs for job-seekers.

So when you consider policies that affect "teachers", make sure to think about how different teachers working in different contexts are likely to be affected. There are probably not many education policies that affect all teachers the same way. - PB (@MrPABruno)(image source)


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