The economic downturn induced by the COVID-19 pandemic may provide a window of opportunity for schools to hire effective teachers. As we write in a recent contribution to the journal Education Next, that’s a hope one may draw from our study of over 30,000 Florida teachers and their students, including teachers who entered the profession during six recessions dating back to 1970. Our study was recently published in the Journal of Labor Economics.
Our research explores how missing job opportunities in the broader economy affects teacher quality. This is a timely question, since jobseekers are likely to outnumber openings for some time. That may benefit schools and students in the long run, as we’ve found that individuals who choose to enter the teaching profession during a recession are significantly more effective at raising test scores. While our study is based in Florida, researchers in the UK have also found that teachers who decide to enter the profession in downturns have stronger credentials than those who enter at other times. Weaker job markets in the broader economy thus offer a window of opportunity to hire better teachers.
The effects we find for Florida are most pronounced in math, where teachers who enter the profession during an economic downturn are around 0.1 standard deviations more effective than those who start teaching when the economy is strong. Many of these teachers tend to stay in the classroom, providing high-quality teaching for many years to come.
The superior effectiveness of recession teachers in Florida does not reflect differences in their observed characteristics or teaching assignments. In comparing teachers who entered the profession during recessions with those who started teaching in better economic times, we find they do not differ significantly by their demographic characteristics or education nor by the demographic makeup of the schools in which they teach. We also provide evidence against a potential alternative explanation that lower demand for teachers during downturns permits school districts to hire the best among an equally talented pool of applicants.
The driving factor instead appears to be occupational choice. Economic downturns temporarily change the supply of potential new teachers, which grows to include adults seeking more stable employment due to a lack of opportunities in other professions. This is why the sharpest increases in effectiveness among teachers who start during recessions are at the top of the distribution of teacher effectiveness. Additional analyses confirm that it is the economic conditions at a teacher’s career start that matter for her effectiveness, not the economic conditions at other times in her career.
Overall, while the economic downturn induced by the Covid-19 pandemic is painful in the short term, it can serve as a window of opportunity to hire more effective teachers, benefitting students in the longer run. Our findings also point to a strategy to improve teacher quality during good times: increase pay for new teachers, in particular, to attract more effective candidates into the profession.