Imagine you ran the economy and could choose between two options. You could allocate the brightest workers to school teaching, where they would spend six hours a day nurturing the intellectual development of the nation's children. Or you could assign the most intelligent workers to dentistry. Societies as diverse as ancient Greece and modern South Korea have attempted to take the former path. Some have said that Australia is choosing the latter.
Yet for all the anecdotes about cut-off scores for teacher education courses, surprisingly little has been written about how the academic aptitude of new Australian teachers has changed over time. Past studies on the teacher labour market have tended to focus on whether we will have enough teachers entering the profession. Instead, we look at whether the academic skills of new teachers make the grade.
To map the trends in teacher aptitude in Australia, we studied the career choices of six cohorts of young people, using surveys by the Australian Council of Educational Research. These surveys administered literacy and numeracy tests to students while they were at school, then followed them into their 20s.
The tests allow us to observe how new teachers compare with the rest of their age cohort, those who became plumbers, doctors, bricklayers and lawyers.
In most of the ACER cohorts, more than 100 respondents entered teacher education courses and many of these went on to become schoolteachers. But the academic make-up changed considerably. In 1983, the average person entering teacher education was at the 74th percentile of the aptitude distribution and the average new teacher was at the 70th percentile of the distribution. By 2003, the average percentile rank of those entering teacher education had fallen to 61, while the average rank of new teachers had slipped to 62.
The decline in the academic aptitude of new teachers has occurred at the top and bottom of the distribution. Focusing on women (who make up about three-quarters of new teachers), the probability of a woman in the top 20 per cent of the academic aptitude distribution entering teaching approximately halved from 1983 to 2003. Meanwhile, the probability of a woman in the bottom 50 per cent of the aptitude distribution entering teaching approximately doubled.
Naturally, there are limitations in our method of measuring teacher aptitude. Academic aptitude may be poorly measured in the ACER tests or it may change during the life cycle. Teacher performance also may be amenable to development through effective training. But our results do accord with evidence from cut-off scores into teacher education courses.
For example, we were able to track entry scores at one of Australia's most distinguished universities, the University of Sydney. In 1977, the cut-off for entry into a bachelor of education (365 out of 500) was nearly as high as law (390), and well above our own discipline of economics (284). But in 2005 the cut-off for entry into a bachelor of education (86.4) was below economics (91.1) and substantially below law (99.6).
The drop in Australian teacher quality is consistent with the findings of US researchers Sean Corcoran, William Evans and Robert Schwab, who estimate that the typical new female teacher in the US was at the 65th percentile in the early 1970s but at the 46th percentile in 2000.
Should we worry if the literacy and numeracy of new teachers has fallen? As the footy aphorism goes, a good player does not always make a good coach. Yet all else being equal, evidence from overseas studies suggests that children learn more when their teachers are more academically talented.
As well as charting the decline, our research also attempts to understand its causes. One factor that seems to have changed substantially during this period is average teacher pay. Compared with non-teachers with a degree, average teacher pay fell by more than 10 per cent during the period 1983 to 2003.
Another driver is pay dispersion in alternative occupations.
In the '80s and '90s, non-teacher earnings at the top of the distribution rose faster than earnings at the middle and bottom of the distribution. For someone with the potential to earn a wage at the 90th percentile of the distribution, teaching looked much less attractive in the 2000s than it did in the '80s.
We believe the fall in average teacher pay and the rise in pay differentials in non-teaching occupations have contributed to the decline in the academic aptitude of new teachers during the past two decades. While our research does not look at the issue, it is also possible that non-salary aspects of teaching may have worsened during this period.
Last, it should be noted that our study focuses on the reasons for the decline in the academic aptitude of new teachers in Australia during the past quarter-century. Reversing these factors is not the only way of raising teacher aptitude. While boosting average teacher pay may be one way of encouraging more able people to enter teaching, it is also possible that increasing the returns to aptitude (or even actual classroom performance) may be a more cost-effective way of raising the quality of the teaching profession.