Message from the Director: “Too Smart to Teach”

In the current narrative about education, one point of consensus is the importance of the teacher.  Eventually, all ideas for improvement revolve around the importance of more skilled teachers.  President Obama has advocated hiring 100,000 new teachers in the areas of math and science.  Frankly, I am not sure how he arrived at the figure of 100,000, and whether that is too many, too few, or about right.  I am an advocate for teachers and education, and the thought of more teachers and a better teacher-student ratio makes my heart soar.

I wish to raise two issues.  First, what is the pool of candidates for these new teachers?  The second issue is the focus (actually lack of focus) on the learning needs of high-ability students in K-12 settings.  A number of recent national reports underscore the current reality that highly-able students show little academic growth and have few opportunities to develop their academic talents in many of today’s schools.  One such report (Loveless, Farkas, & Duffett, 2008) indicates:

  1. Teachers report that struggling students rather than advanced students are schools’ top priority;
  2. Low-achieving students receive dramatically more attention from teachers;
  3. Teachers believe that all students deserve an equal share of attention.

The importance of paying more attention to the needs of high-ability students correlates to having the capacity to meet the more advanced needs of these students.  Thus, the pool of future teachers should include those who come from strong academic backgrounds themselves; these new teachers could identify with the needs of high ability students as well as have the academic abilities to provide high-level and complex instruction.

I am currently a co-investigator in a research study analyzing the top scoring students on the ACT, the nation’s most-used college admissions exam.  My co-investigators are Dr. David Duys, faculty in Counselor Education at the University of Iowa and expert in career development, and Dr. Malik Henfield, faculty in the same Counselor Education program and expert in the needs of gifted African American students. The ACT is scored on a scale of 1-35; a student who scores a 30 or better (overall score) is in the top 5% (approximately) of the nation.  Typically, this level of performance is associated with students who are selected for gifted programs and who are recognized as academically advanced.  David, Malik, and I are documenting trends among these top-scoring students to better understand both their academic and non-academic characteristics.  We have access to the ACT scores for the years 2000, 2005, and 2010.  We hope to continue working with ACT to analyze high scores at 5-year intervals in the future.

In the year 2000, a total of 50,282 students scored in the top 5%; in the year 2005, it was 59,776; and in 2010, a total of 70,993 achieved a score in the top 5%.  For these three testing periods, a total of 181,051 qualified for our study sample—pretty impressive numbers when attempting to determine characteristics and trends.  The one statistic that I want to highlight in this message has to do with the percentage of these high scoring students who indicated an interest in becoming teachers.  In the year 2000, 4.3% selected teaching as their career goal; in 2005 it was 3.9%; and in 2010 it was 2.6%.  (In contrast, interest in careers in sciences, engineering, and healthcare ranged from 13% to slightly over 15%.)

Two things stand out about the statistics regarding interest in teaching.  First, the percentages seem low, and second, the percentages are going down with each 5-year segment.  Earlier in this message, I asked whether the call for 100,000 more teachers was high, low, or about right.  Are the percentages for high-ability students selecting teaching as a future profession high, low, or about right?  Preliminary findings for 2010 suggest that out of the entire population that took the ACT (over 1 million), 6.8% indicated a preference for a career in teaching.  This 6.8% is well over two times the 2.6% of top students who indicated an interest in teaching.  So yes, these percentages not only look low, but also, comparatively, they are low.

We don’t have the information at this point to determine why a career in teaching/education is such a low priority among top academic students.  Perhaps it’s the status, the constant barrage that teachers have experienced these last years, or the pay.  Whatever it is, we need to figure it out and make teaching and education in general much more appealing to our top high school graduates.  We can’t keep talking about the critical importance of teachers and somehow convey the message that if you really are tops academically, “you are too smart to teach.”  If teaching is truly important to the future of the nation, then the profession needs to be made so attractive, so respected, so exciting, that the message to our top students will be “you are too smart not to teach.”

Nicholas Colangelo, Director


Loveless, T., Farkas, S. & Duffett, A. (2008). High-achieving students in the era of NCLB. Washington, DC:  Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

One response to “Message from the Director: “Too Smart to Teach”

  1. Agreed! I am at this moment, sitting outside the president of my alma mater’s office, waiting to propose to a professor of religion (head of sustainabilty projects) at the college, my aspiration to teach an “History of Sustainability” course at the college. I long to teach, yet having worked in my profession instead of academia, am at a disadvantage. Hopefully the call for teachers will be fruitful for our children and generations to come.
    I admire Belin-Blank’s work and thank you.

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