Lousy Economy Is Giving Us Smarter Teachers

When the whole world was going to hell, the safest place to be was a government job in a big city such as New York.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, both my parents worked for either the City or the State of New York. (No, the irony of their first child becoming a libertarian columnist is not lost on any of us.) This is a rich source of lore about many areas of state and local government, but here's one of the most interesting tidbits: Both of them report that back then, you often came across people of unusual competence and brilliance in the city bureaucracy.

Oh, sure, you also came across Inertia Man, who was determined not to stir from his chair until the time came to collect his pension. But in the 1960s, they say, there were also some really first class managers in the senior ranks of the civil service. By the 1980s, however, they had all retired.

One theory is that this is sheer nostalgia. But another theory is that this was the legacy of the Great Depression. When the whole world was going to hell, the safest place to be was a government job in a big city such as New York; at least you knew your employer wasn't going to go out of business. The vast expansion of the government bureaucracy that took place in the 1930s made room for a lot of top candidates who probably would have gone to more lucrative jobs in the private sector, if there had been any lucrative jobs in the private sector. By the time things got back to normal, after World War II, these folks were in their thirties, maybe even pushing 40, and they stuck around for the pension rather than starting over in a private firm. It may be that one reason there was more support for government intervention during the postwar boom is that, with these folks at the top, local government really was much better at getting stuff done.

It's hard to verify this with hard data, of course. But here's one data point from the current recession that suggests it's true -- and that history may be repeating itself: Teacher quality is improving as the labor market weakens.

Many believe that teachers in the United States are more likely to be drawn from the lower end of the academic achievement distribution than are teachers in selected high-performing countries. However, this has changed, according to a study conducted by Dan Goldhaber, director of the Center for Education Data & Research, and Joe Walch, a research consultant at Education Data & Research at the University of Washington.

· There was an upward shift in achievement for 2008 college graduates entering the teacher workforce the following school year.

· In fact, 2008 graduates both with and without STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) majors who entered the teacher workforce had higher average SAT scores than their peers who entered other occupations.

What's behind this shift? The authors suspect the tight job market:

· According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average unemployment rate in 2009 was about 9 percent to about 6 percent and 5 percent in 1994 and 2001, respectively.

· The high unemployment rate in 2009 may have led more high-scoring graduates to choose to pursue comparatively stable and secure teaching jobs rather than occupations that were viewed as riskier in the economic downturn.

As insecurity in the private-sector labor market increases, the value of public-sector job protections effectively increases, meaning that candidates will be willing to accept lower pay in exchange for the guarantee that it will be nearly impossible to fire them. This is separate from the shrinking number of jobs in the private sector, which also conspires to make higher quality candidates available to school districts. Both factors together could give us a nice boost in teacher scores.

Of course, it's also possible that a lot of college students suddenly and for no apparent reason decided they wanted to be teachers around the same time that the job market became massively more insecure. But I'm betting it's no coincidence. Bad news for the graduating seniors, but good news for the nation's schools.

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    Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

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