Teachers vs Dentists

Chris Ryan and I have written up our paper on teacher aptitude as an oped for today’s Australian. I’m pretty happy with the way the piece turned out. 

It’s also received some coverage in the SMH, Oz, Age, ABC and AAP. From her quotes in the Oz and Age, it sounds like Australian Education Union president Pat Byrne agrees with our diagnosis, though not our remedy.

This entry was posted in Economics of Education. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Teachers vs Dentists

  1. Kevin Cox says:


    I would have thought it an abberration if teacher’s relative scores had stayed the same as the rest of the work force for the reason that there are more different jobs and more opportunities and a relatively larger proportion of the population for whom teaching is a career.

    Twenty years ago a graduate had fewer choices on what to do.

    If you model the work force where new professions and new opportunities are introduced then it seems inevitable that all the old professions will see a drop in relative standing for the reason that there are now relatively more people who can do these jobs. That is you have increased the total number of people who can now take these jobs and so you have reduced the overall “quality” of the whole professional workforce.

    I am not sure if I am explaining this properly but let me try again.

    Say 20 years ago there was 20% of the population could have been teachers. Because we have more graduates and more total jobs in all the professions there are now 40% of the population who can be teachers. If the average is lower the more people you have then it seems to me that the average of teachers will automatically be lower.

    In other words the reason for the “decline” in relative teacher standards is more to do with the relative number of people available to do the job than factors such as pay?

    If I understand it correctly womens relativities seem to have fallen more than men. This would seem to back this proposition because women now have more opportunities today than they had 20 years ago relative to men and so we would expect their relative averages to have fallen.

    Have you taken this effect into account in your analysis?

  2. Andrew Leigh says:

    Kevin, the changes in the rest of the labour market certainly explain much of the decline in teacher aptitude. Pay methods in the teaching profession today look a lot like they did in the early-80s. The same isn’t true for the rest of the labor force.

    And yes, the changes do seem to be biggest for women, but because our samples of men are smaller (75% of teachers are women), we can’t be as precise about what’s going on there.

  3. Kevin Cox says:

    Andrew my question is how much of the change is due to changes in the overall labour market and how much due to the pay methods and other factors. My concern is that we will go down the wrong track with respect to policies by introducing merit pay without knowing how important this is. If, for example, merit pay was a 10% factor while overall labour market (or other factors) account for 90% then we are better to concentrate on those other factors.

    Also we have Finnish data which as I understand it indicates that pay is less important with respect to the quality of teachers and much more to do with the status of teachers in society.

  4. Damien Eldridge says:


    The research received some coverage on one of the morning chat shows on tv this morning too. I think it was sunrise on Channel 7. However, they didn’t mention you guys by name. They just said researchers (or it might have been researchers from the Australian National University).



  5. Gary Pears says:

    Andrew my research of 1996 examined “Teacher Competence and the Teaching of Thinking” in Australian aSchools {Govt and non-Govt}
    The study was a large scale comparative examination of student AND teacher cohorts. Year 7 Primary students [Gifted and regular students]; 1st year teacher trainees and in service teachers of the gifted [trained in G&T] and teachers in Regular Y7 classrooms. In addition, and most importantly, the study compared the Teacher Cohorts aganst the Student Cohorts in the areas of Critical Thinking; Creative Thinking; Enquiry Thinking; and Academic Achievement.

    AT that time one of the pressage variables examined was Teacher Quality. The data sugested that Primary teachers were being attracted from the ‘bottom’ quartile of the Y12 TEE graduates, a figure that was taken from the WA Teachers Union own data. More importantly, in 1990, only 0.7 % of the top 10% of WA TEE graduates chose to enter teacher training.In fact in the period 1978 to 1990 the % of TEE graduates from the top 10% choosing rose from 21% to 38%, almost double. However, by 1994 WA Universities we accepting TEE graduates into teaching with TEE scores of 300 or less while the TEE score required for Commerce was 360; Law 415 and Medicine 447.

    The study found that regardless of ability, there was liitle progress in Critical, Creative and Enquiry thinking of primary students after 7 years of schooling. However, what is of greatest importance is that there was little difference between the teachers [both pre and in-service] and their primary students and this was particularly the case for Gifted and Talented students in their care – with large effect sizes.

    Indeed your current data and my own understanding of the quality of pre-service teacher trainees [I still lecture in teacher education] suggests that that situation has, at best remained static, and at worst got much worse. We are now accepting students into mnteacher education who have NO Y12 and poor literacy and numeracy because they can pay and we have a teacher shortage. They then spend time repeating and failing internal Numeracy & Literacy ‘bridging courses’. The % of 1st year students requiring such courses is increasing.
    Not only is the standard of Numeracy and Literacy of our teachers at all time low, they are unable to teach our students to think critically for they themselves lack the necessary levels of ‘Funcitional Cognition’ and Good Thinking.

  6. Andrew Leigh says:

    Kevin, there’s no merit pay in Australian teaching in the 1980s or 2000s, so it can’t explain the decline. But Chris Ryan and I suggest that it might turn out to be a cost-effective solution (I’ve done some writing on the relevant US research).

    Gary, thanks very much for your comments. Is there any chance you could post a link to your study, or email/mail me a copy?

  7. Kevin Cox says:

    Your article and the suggestion that teacher’s salaries include a merit component worries me.
    I still remember my own schooldays, remember my children’s schooldays and am now observing my grandchildren’s schooldays. This small sample tells me that educational outcomes are getting better and the parents I speak to in the school yard reinforce my perception.
    We would expect the relative scores of the average teacher to drop because teaching is now available to more of the population.
    Your article is about relativities, not absolutes and little about educational outcomes. The fact that the average teacher scores relatively less on literacy and numeracy tests is interesting and to me expected but is not evidence that we need to change the way we reward teachers.
    There is much to be said for teachers getting about the same salaries as it may make it easier for teachers to cooperate rather than compete which may give better learning outcomes for students.

    There are many important questions that need to be addressed before we go down the path of merit based pay.

    1. Has the absolute literacy and numeracy scores for the average teacher changed?
    2. Is there any evidence that learning outcomes of students taught by teachers with lower scores is worse?
    3. Are students learning less today than in the past?
    4. Are the learning outcomes of students better in an environment where teachers are rewarded on some merit criteria?
    5. How are we going to measure merit and won’t it soon debase itself into credentialism and cronyism?
    6. Is it best for society to have the “smartest” people to be teaching. Perhaps the smartest are best used in research on better ways to learn?

    Unless we have answers to these questions then I think it would be unwise to change the pay system of teachers.

  8. derrida derider says:

    …we have Finnish data which as I understand it indicates that pay is less important with respect to the quality of teachers and much more to do with the status of teachers in society. – Kevin Cox

    True, but unfortunately we have adopted materialist values – your status in society is mainly set by your pay. And, most importantly, vice versa.

    I think this last is just another nail in the coffin of the neoclassical view that people are paid their marginal product – maybe I’m becoming a sociologist rather than an economist in my dotage.

Comments are closed.