20 January 2012

PE, Special Ed and Elementary Ed Teachers Had Low SATs

Essentially all certified K-12 teachers have to earn a four year college degree and go through some sort of certification process that in some cases involves a basic academic skills test. A large portion of them took the SAT as part of the college admissions process.

A new study has compared the SAT verbal scores of teachers certified in various areas to the average SAT verbal scores of college graduates who took the SAT (543) in a state where there is a requirement to take a basic academic skills test as part of the certification process.

The SAT verbal test (and non-subject area SAT scores in general) are fairly closely correlated with IQ, and the IQ of people who take the SAT is just as likely to be above an expected value for those SAT scors as they are to be below it, so for reasonably large samples, average SAT scores for the group are provide a decent approximation of the average IQ scores of people in the group.

The good news is that after the basic academic skills tests, for most fields of education certification people certified had either modestly better SAT scores than those before the tests were imposed (for English, Science, Social Studies, Math, Art and Music, Elementary Education, Physical Education) or there was a statistically insignificant decline in a field with a lower than average number of certifcations in it (Special Education and Foreign Language).

Before and after the basic academic skills test was imposed, teachers in all high school level certification areas (Mathematic, Science, Social Studies, Foreign Languages and English) were above average relative to all college graduates, althougn not by a lot (certified teachers in English, with an average SAT verbal of 575 were the highest scoring kind of certification). This is good news because education majors in colleges, generally, have some of the weakest admissions statistics of students of any major at colleges and universities. After the basic skills test was imposed, certified teachers in art and music were also above average when they had been below average before then.

Teachers certified in elementary education, special education and physical education all had verbal SAT scores significantly below the average for college graduates, although the basic academic skills test significantly boosted the SAT verbal scores of new certified teachers in physical education and elementary education. Newly certified teachers in physical education had by far the lowest SAT verbal scores of any of the certification types at about 470 after the basic academic skills test requirement was imposed and perhaps 460 before it was imposed.

Unsurprisingly, teachers certified in mathematics had the highest math SAT scores followed by teachers certified in science, and both of these groups had math SAT scores well above the average for college graduates (542). The average for math teachers was just short of 600.

The teachers certified after the basic academic skills test had higher math SAT scores in every single discipline, with particularly significant improvements in physical education teachers, elementary education teachers and art and music teachers, for whom high school level mathematics is unimportant in their daily work. Disappointingly, newly certified teachers in every certification type other than math and science had SAT math scores that were below average for college graduates. Physical education, special education and elementary education, just as was the case for SAT verbal scores, were the lowest, although while pre-skills test PE teachers were the lowest category, after the skills test was required, special education teachers lagged below PE teachers (PE teachers had an average math SAT score of about 495 after the skills test was imposed v. perhaps 490 for special education teachers).

Since the SATs and IQ generally, are very close proxies for aptitude in traditional academic pursuits, and don't measure either personality traits that may be pertinent to teaching, or physical ability, and since physical education is not a traditional academic pursuit, surely it is less troubling that physical education teachers had lower SAT verbal scores than it would have been if teachers in some academic areas had such low SAT verbal scores. People smart enough to graduate from college who happen to be less smart than the average college graduate have to do something, and teaching physical education is probably as good a thing to do as anything.

But, with that possible caveat, I think that it is likely to be generally the case that the score a teacher got on their SATs is likely to be a better predictor of their teaching performance than the content of any education courses that they took prior to being certified. Indeed, it is my recollection that there have been some studies showing that students who were certified in a program that didn't require many education classes faired better than those who were education majors in traditional education programs.

Likewise, one can argue that outside of physical education, that the most important thing is for a teacher to have significantly more verbal mastery than their students, and even college graduates who have SAT verbal and math scores below the average for college graduates certainly should be able to meet that standard in elementary education and special education, because elementary school students are still developing basic language skills and many special education students have some sort of language deficits or math deficits in the subjects where they are receiving special education assistance.

On the other hand, it isn't unreasonable to argue that teaching special education students actually calls for higher IQ than teacher students who have no impediment to their ability to learn in the subjects taught, because for other students learning these subjects comes relatively naturally, and that it may be more important to have high IQ elementary education teachers than to have high IQ high school teachers, because to the extent that student learning is not largely determined by personal IQ and family and geographic circumstances (i.e. the availablity of good schools), it seems to be the case that academic performance ossifies fairly young so that exposure to the smartest teachers as soon as possible is more likely to have a lasting impact than exposure to the smartest teachers after one has already spent eight or more years in the K-12 education system.

Teacher pay by specialty seems to be fairly signficantly correlated with the SAT scores of teachers certified in a particular specialty. High school teachers generally earn more than elementary school teachers. Indeed, early childhood education and kindergarten level instruction seems to be the point at which the quality of educational environments has the most significant impact and some good studies have shown that the benefits of early childhood education are still statistically discernable by the time those kids are leaving the K-12 education system.

Making it easier for smart people who didn't major in education in college (and perhaps didn't even go to college) to become teachers, and improving teacher pay in a way that credibly convinces people choosing majors and career paths in college that the higher pay for teachers will be sustained in the long term, are probably the two best ways to attract the most qualified people to become teachers. Basic academic skills tests for potential teachers has some impact, particularly in weeding out the least smart teachers in certifications that have a record of attracting less academically bright college students. But, they do little to improve the average or to attract people at the high end of academic ability range to the field.

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