The Covid-19 pandemic has caused plenty of problems in education, but a recently published study offers a sliver of good news for schools that—despite recent budget constraints—may soon find themselves in need of additional teachers to make social distancing feasible or to cover the loss of veteran teachers who opt to retire rather than return to the classroom amidst a pandemic.
Harvard professor Martin West and his colleagues begin with a simple question: Do economic recessions, and a tight job market in the broader economy, impact teacher quality? In theory, teaching becomes more attractive to jobseekers during a recession because of the profession’s relative stability; even during economic downturns, teacher pay is rarely cut, schools often continue to hire, and tenure provides job protections that are seldom available in the private sector. Although the comparatively low salaries of teachers might be a deterrence in a healthy economy, downturns could make the classroom more appealing. If that is indeed the case, the average ability of adults entering the teaching force during recessions may also be higher.
The study focuses on Florida, where the state’s certification system includes alternative routes that make it easier for non-education majors to become teachers. The dataset includes approximately 32,600 fourth and fifth grade teachers who started in the classroom between 1969 and 2009, a time span that contained six recessions. Roughly 5,200 teachers entered the profession during one of the recessions. The sample was limited to educators who taught fourth or fifth grade because they typically teach multiple subjects and could be “confidently associated” with student test score gains. The data also included teacher demographics and years of experience, as well as the demographic and educational characteristics of students. To measure teacher effectiveness, the researchers estimated value-added scores based on the math and reading portions of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test from 2000–01 through 2008–09.
The findings indicate that teachers who started their careers during a recession are more effective at raising student test scores. When compared to those who entered the classroom during better economic times, recession-era teachers registered value-added estimates that were 0.11 standard deviations higher in math and 0.05 standard deviations higher in reading. These are modest effects that translate to no more than a week’s worth of additional learning per year, but the researchers point out that even small differences can add up. It’s important to note that these results were not driven by a specific economic downturn. The recession impact appears over time. The results also do not reflect a difference in observed teacher characteristics or teaching assignments. Instead, it appears that recessions temporarily change the supply of new teachers in positive ways. Furthermore, while they may have been pushed into teaching by temporary economic conditions, the data indicate that many of these teachers opt to stay in the classroom even after economic conditions improved.
Overall, the study offers a silver lining for schools in the age of coronavirus. The current crisis is undoubtedly painful, but it may allow school leaders to hire more effective teachers over the next few years.
SOURCE: Martin R. West, Markus Nagler, and Marc Piopiunik, “Weak Markets, Strong Teachers: Recession at Career Start and Teacher Effectiveness,” Journal of Labor Economics (April 2020).