May 12, 2004

Research finds star students
shunning teaching careers

An economics professor from California State University, Sacramento has entered the national fray over teacher quality with a research approach that finds far fewer “academic stars” are choosing to teach.

Sean Corcoran says the top 10 percent of high school student are now much less likely to become teachers than in the 1950s, meaning today’s students have a lower chance of learning from the high achievers. On the flip side, Corcoran also says there has been just a slight decline in average teacher quality.

The findings are based on math and verbal tests the teachers took while still in high school. Prior research has linked these standardized measures of the cognitive abilities of future teachers to their students’ achievement.

“Wages have gone up since the 1950s in professions other than teaching – in particular in high-skilled professions like law and medicine – and it appears that top performing women have taken advantage of new opportunities to enter those higher paying professions,” he says. Because 75 percent of all teachers are women, he says, that has meant a sharp drop in high achievers who become teachers.

“Society needs to decide how much we need these high achievers in the classroom,” Corcoran says. “Do we want to pay enough to lure them back? Or are we better off with them doing other things, like finding cures for diseases?”

A short version of the research will appear in the May issue of the American Economic Review, with a longer version set to appear in the summer issue of Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Both were co-written with University of Maryland professors William Evans and Robert Schwab, and the data was gathered as part of Corcoran’s doctoral work at Maryland.

Corcoran used long-term studies – some more than five decades old – that follow students from high school through their careers. He looked at the scores on standardized high school math and verbal tests of those who became teachers, and found that while the average scores for teachers haven’t fallen much, there’s a marked drop in those in the top 10th percentile who choose to teach.

“People have just assumed that quality has fallen over time, but when I started looking I realized there wasn’t really any proof,” says Corcoran, who specializes in economic issues as they relate to education. “There were no numbers.”

Corcoran’s research already has attracted attention from the New York Times, which published a story on it in March after a reporter saw Corcoran make a presentation at a national conference. He plans future research on school finance, teacher pay and obstacles to teaching other than salary.

More information is available by contacting Corcoran at (916) 278-7653; the studies are at Additional media assistance is available from CSUS public affairs at (916) 278-6156.


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