Physical education teachers are not smart

By Razib Khan | January 20, 2012 1:51 am

So there is a website out there, Educational Realist (via Steve Sailer), which made me aware of some statistics from ETS on the intellectual aptitudes of those who passed a teaching certification. This is relevant because those who major in education at university are notoriously rather weak students. The implication here is that teachers are substandard as a whole, a narrative long favored on the American Right, but now spreading in some parts of the Left.

Below are the verbal and mathematical scores by licensing domain. The solid line represents the average SAT score of a college graduate.

First, as a whole it seems the teaching profession is a high verbal and low math area, with math & science teachers being exceptions. But it really looks to me like there’s a sharp discontinuity between two groups of teachers here. Physical and special education instructors, as well as elementary school teachers, are less intelligent than the average college graduate. The other fields far less so, and in their domain of specialization they seem to be superior to the average college graduate.

Another table also caught my eye. You see see in the table to the left that teachers are far whiter than their students. It is clear that the “Other” category is mostly Asian from later tables. Observe that both Asians and Hispanics are underrepresented in the teaching corps by a factor of 7 in relation to the number of Asian and Hispanic students. I suppose someone might start wondering as to whether this is a problem, but last I checked Asian students are not having difficulties despite not having Asian ethnicity teachers. And in any case, no offense to the teaching profession, but if there is outreach to Asian Americans to encourage their children to become teachers there may be violent repercussions. There’s enough ostracism already when children decide to go graduate school, instead of medical or law school. Trying to change the professional priorities of the community is going to be viewed as insensitive.

To be more explicit at what I’m getting at, below are mean SAT test scores comparing individuals of various races between those who are college bound (not necessarily graduates!) and those who pass teaching certification.

College bound seniors, 2010Passed teacher certification, 2002-2005
SAT Math591536429521524459
SAT Verbal519528428510534482

As you can see, Asian teachers, who presumably have a college degree, actually score lower than college bound Asians! This means they’re almost certainly drawn from a below average set of college graduates. For whites there is not so much discrepancy. And interestingly for blacks teachers seem to be drawn from the higher end of the distribution.

MORE ABOUT: Education, Teachers

Comments (72)

  1. Vebyast

    It would be interesting to see how these statistics compare to other college grads in the field that the teacher is getting a certificate in – that is, how a math teacher compares with a math major, how an english teacher compares to an english major.

  2. Yeah, it seems to me, high school teachers are generally average, to somewhat above average ‘where it counts’ (in their speciality).

    But what’s disturbing is the elementary teachers. I mean really you don’t need to be smart to do PE. And special education, it only affects a small % of students, although it’s very important for them.

    But elementary teachers are the most important of all in many ways, no?

  3. immu

    In Finland this is not true at all that teachers would have been bad students themselves, in fact it is pretty hard to get to study education in Finland. And guess what, Finland scored the top PISA (student skills at the age of 15) scores for many years in a row in the world, above Asia. Now they have Shanghai in the PISA (which is cheating because it hardly represents the whole of China, it would be like testing the richest city of any country with huge income differences).

    There is nothing that would make schools better, in general, if you privatize them. No, it is about how well paid they are, how well treated and how well trained (including who gets in).

  4. Cameron

    Doesn’t Finland require a Masters degree to teach at high school or something? I’d agree with that, personally. Can’t recall one high school teacher who had an impact on what I study at university or how well I do at university. I was a bit of a pain in the ass at high school but it was me who got me out of the rut, not any particular teacher; they all seemed pretty dis-interested and just wanted to get the day over with.

  5. Jake

    I think that the low degree of income inequality in countries such as Finland makes privatizing schools a much more effective option than it would be in many other countries.

  6. April Brown

    This data would have been vastly comforting for me back in elementary school when I was being tormented by various knuckledragging bullies who got to torture me once a day in the name of teaching me physical fitness. Now if you could also find data to compare these numbers with personality traits like “tendency to bully the weak” and “tendency to find injuries funny” you’d really be on to something.

  7. soren

    “There is nothing that would make schools better, in general, if you privatize them. No, it is about how well paid they are, how well treated and how well trained (including who gets in).”

    Oh get over yourself, what Finland has going for it is that it is the most “bigoted” Scandinavian country. And you guys score lower than Koreans and Asians residing in the United States.

  8. Karl Zimmerman

    The irony is that physical education teachers are almost invariably the highest-paid teachers in most school systems, because they get a bonus of a few thousand dollars for each team they coach.

    Honestly though, those sort of skills when it comes to phys-ed probably don’t matter. I’d say you’d want some basic math skills, because you need to keep track of student statistics regarding reps, weight, and time. But verbal skills aren’t needed. And indeed, as bad as phys-ed teachers seem to do on the SAT, they do score slightly better on the math section.

    The really dangerous thing, however, is that a lot of schools double up gym and health class. I know that in my own, upper-middle class school district in Connecticut, they got rid of standalone health when I entered high school, leaving it up to the gym teachers to work it in during one quarter – something that did not fit their skills at all, and really should have been taught by a biology teacher if anyone.

    I agree with Neuroskeptic though that the elementary school statistics are the frightening part, but in general not unexpected. I would be interested to see middle school broken out as well. My perception is that jobs in middle school are considered undesirable, for obvious reasons (classrooms are the most out of control, teaching is less fun than high school). However, since the skills are theoretically the same as high school, teachers try to bid into high school positions ASAP. My own personal opinion remains middle school is such a waste of student time it would be better to have a few year hiatus from school entirely during that period.

  9. plutosdad

    In your last graph is it comparing the 2010 SAT with 2002-2005 SATs? Can we do that? I don’t know what differences there are, I know they change it around. The other graphs all seem to compare to other people in the same year.

    I’d be interested to see if it’s broken down by public and private school teachers as well.

    I live in Chicago and know a few public school elementary and special ed teachers. Almost every one of them I think is incredibly dumb, to the point where I fear for our future. But growing up I went to a private school, took honors classes (which seem to attract better teachers), not in the city (Chicago having had notoriously bad public schools in the past), and wonder if my teachers were better, or if I was just too young to notice, or maybe I just happen to meet a bad group of teachers (through improv classes, so there is some sort of selection going on, teachers who want to try out improv to improve their speaking skills) or I have some prejudice against teachers that I don’t know about.

    So given all that I try not to think that all teachers are dumb, but it’s hard to tell yourself “anecdotes are not data” especially when they are your anecdotes! But these graphs may explain some of it. Teachers in schools known for being pretty bad, who also are in elementary or special ed.

    wow, that can be pretty sad. Think about it, we may think well an elementary school teacher doesn’t have to be as smart as a high/middle school science teacher. But, that elementary school teacher is probably also not doing nearly as good a job as a smarter person would, maybe not constantly improving their skills or really grasping the *why* of some educational theories, or maybe not understanding how to reach certain kids as well. I wonder what effect that has on students.

  10. AG


    Blaming winners as cheaters is quite common for losers in sports or other competitions. Here is some reality check from the Sailer’s post below.

    Finland really benefits from homogeneity and small size, which is smaller than Shanghai. Your own argument can be used against your own point. How about shanghai form its own country? Actually a shanghai celebrity recently claimed such idea to be shanghainese different from the rest Chinese, sounding like seeking independence from China.

    But people from small countries all tend to have strong ethnic pride, which is defended with passion. Understanding your emotion.

  11. gcochran

    People from ethnic groups X typically score just as high ( or higher) in the US than in their country of origin. There is nothing particularly wrong with American education.

    We just have a higher percentage of dumb kids than Finland or China.

  12. Cathy

    My husband is an education prof, with the earlier gatekeeper classes (i.e. – they can’t pass his classes, they don’t go into education at that school.) This seems about right. There is a certain mindset to the predominately white, predominately female early childhood education major – she LOVES children, she wants to be a teacher because she wants to make a difference in the world, and she was never really that interested in any one specific subject as a student herself. The former two are probably the best requirements for any elementary school teacher, but the latter is probably the explanation for the low SAT scores in math and verbal.

  13. Larry, San Francisco

    I have been reading about scripted learning which seems to be reasonably successful for kids on the left hand of the bell curve (here is one reference I found):

    I know teachers hate it since it is really boring to teach and not very creative. However, I wonder if this program could be successful with lower IQ teachers who would appreciate the guidance.

  14. modesty

    What role do teacher’s salary play a role in attracting talent? How prevalent were SAT prep classes back in the nineties or among Asian bound college students?

  15. Chris

    As someone who is teaching gen chem in college I have to say these results don’s seem so surprising. The requirement was to have one year of HS chemistry but they couldn’t even remember that HCl was hydrochloric acid and H2SO4 was sulfuric acid. Some said that “It’s been a few years.” OK, but even though it has been over a decade since I read Moby Dick, I still remember the “Call me Ishmael” These teachers aren’t preparing the students for college.

  16. Fran Rush

    Which is why I joined Mensa…. and I have taught in the physical education field for 47 years now. Some of the most brilliant people I know are in this wonderful field.

  17. at my HS PE teachers would be put into social science courses, since they had to teach something besides gym. often not pretty. but the craziest thing was a math ‘teacher’ i had. this individual basically didn’t teach, but just read out of the book and passed out ditto-sheets. later i found out that the person started out as a gym teacher, but over time gained seniority, and for some they had to put them in math. over time this person became a math ‘teacher,’ though the other real math teachers apparently resented it….

  18. d

    First, I am not entirely sure why this article has the specific title “PE teachers are not smart” when the premise of the article is comparing how ALL teachers stack up on SAT scores. Secondly, many physical education teachers do not specifically teach sport skills, but life lessons and how to care for your own body. As a reader, I would not be quick to dismiss the basic fundamentals taught in PE. Without your health, you have nothing. The PE program within the school district that I personally teach in, provides students with lessons based on body composition/weight management, nutrition, cardio-respiratory fitness, muscular development, skeletal fitness, stress management and care and prevention of injuries. One might argue that those cannot compare to skills learned in Math or English classes, but to me they all go hand in hand. One must be able to use numbers and equations to calculate BMI, various heart rates and navigate a food label. Reading also tends to come in handy when reading journal articles on diet fads or genetically modified foods. Writing skills come in when you are designing a plan to help students maintain their best health possible.

    Teaching is about more than being able to navigate an SAT. It is about captivating a reluctant audience. It is about generating curiosity in uncertain circumstances with students who are going through more life hardships than you know. It is a balancing act and an exciting adventure. Shame on anyone who tries to insult an educator for working to brighten the future of our youth.

  19. If we succeed in raising the IQs of schoolteachers, there will be even more racial disparate impact in hiring.

  20. “If we succeed in raising the IQs of schoolteachers, there will be even more racial disparate impact in hiring.”

    I think I’ve got a solution to this dilemma:

    1.) Lower standards to gloriously ensure that no child is left behind.
    2.) Jail racists who seditiously complain that lowering standards could be ‘bad’.

  21. ackbark

    In my high school all the math teachers were ex-gym teachers or doubled as gym teachers. It certainly didn’t help my thin math abilities.

    What I remember from early elementary school was that all the teachers weren’t so much interested in teaching as they were in sitting around in a circle on the ground having a great wallow in infantility.

    I think requiring all teachers to have at least a master’s degree in whatever field they’re teaching is an excellent idea.

  22. April Brown

    @ 18

    Sounds like the students at your school are lucky to have a PE teacher who is teaching their students things worth knowing. I suspect this is uncommon – certainly my own experience and those of people I’ve spoken with on the subject seems to suggest that it’s a bit more common to have a gym teacher who is challenged by concepts outside the rules of football and whistle blowing.

    (Note – I respect people who can understand the rules of football. I have yet to really figure out the game.)

  23. Mike

    PE teachers not only teach PE but also Health, which is something that many seem to overlook. If we look at our country today we see people living unhealthy lifestyles. This may be because PE and health are not required in many states as well as only being given, a minimum, twice a week. With there being a rise in cardio vascular problems in all ages, you would think that schools would want students to be taught how to live healthy lifestyles; to be given information that is taught on a regular basis and not just a mere twice a week. People have this stigma that PE is an easy profession and that it does not require much time and effort. A true physical education teacher takes a lot of time and effort to describe and demonstrate to kids of all learning levels and abilities; where as a math or science teacher has kids all on the same learning level, PE teachers do not. I am not saying that teaching Math or Science is an easy profession, but it does become easier when all of the students are on the same learning level. For example, when you have a college prep class, all those students are smart enough to be in that class. In a physical education class you have students who are proficient movers while other students struggle with the basic movements. A PE teacher takes a significant amount of time to set up lessons that meet both the proficient movers of the class as well as the other average movers. I am not trying to compare teaching physical education to teaching the academic subjects of math, science, history, etc… Each of these professions have their own difficulties that the educator must be able to handle. A phsycial education teacher may not be able to handle the problems or questions that come up in a math class but a math teacher will certainly not be able to handle the problems or questions that come up in a helth or physical education class. In order to teach a physical education class you need to obtain a 4-year degree from an accredited university and pass the Praxis exam in physical education. A math teacher needs to do the same thing to teach math. A PE teacher is well educated in physical education, while a math teacher is well educated in math. To say that a physical education teacher is not well educated or unitelligent is just an ignorant statement.
    On the topic that PE teachers getting paid too much to coach:

    Most coaches barely make any money, they are busy spending money on the program that they coach, whether that is on uniforms, food for the athletes, or equipment. Especially know with how the economy being the way it is, coaches need to put more of their own money into their program if they want to have a successful team. Coaches put time in at the end of the day and weekends to go to games or meets while they could be spending that time with their families. They instead are using that time to try to help kids become successful outside the classroom. Coaches do not do it for the money, they do it for the love of the sport because they want to see kids have the same success that they may have had in their given sport.

    In essence, do not assume that PE is an easy profession and are overpaid. Because when you assume you make an . .

  24. Baramos

    Well, my degree is in English education. I think I scored 1200 or 1250 on the SAT back in High School, but as mentioned in the statistical analysis, I definitely had a high verbal score and a middling math score, so at least in my own experience I’d say these statistics are spot-on. My math skills hit a plateau when I attempted to take Calculus.

    But, as others have said, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to expect physical education teachers to have high verbal/math scores. I would expect them to have been playing sports in high school, probably average students, that is why they are interested in teaching sports to kids. Their talents are not necessarily academical in the first place. It is troubling that so many teach health classes when they are often not qualified to do so, but then again their work-ethic can play into that somewhat. I had a gym teacher who could not even handle teaching a driver’s ed class, let alone a health class, whereas I had another gym teacher who was a more than decent social studies teacher. The first was a drunkard and the second was a hard worker–effort made all the difference if you ask me.

    I think the idea that teachers are generally weak students is a ridiculous assertion, however. Most have passed through a fairly rigorous educational program.

    Then again, I am in one of the more stringent states (Pennsylvania), I believe the only one more stringent is New York. So the standards of the teaching programs in our universities are possibly more stringent than those in other states. If a state has low standards for its teachers, it will pass through a lot more teachers who were weak students.

  25. jay

    I think many of the comments are going on some wrong assumptions.

    PE does NOT require math skills. The examples of player stats or BMI are just simple arithmetic, and probably done by a computer program anyhow. It requires no understanding of algebra, trig, or number theory. While health classes may be perceived as important, it does not mean that PE teachers teach them well. My high school PE teacher was nice guy and a good PE teacher but awkward in the classroom. (It was funny how one day he told us he had just gotten his masters; I was impressed until he told us it was in PE).

    Elementary education does not normally require intellectual brilliance, but does require empathy and patience and an intuitive understanding of children, and the SATs do not score this.

  26. Clark

    Canada requires more education than the US to teach as well.

    I was pretty astounded that the math teachers scored so poorly but I think that’s because it’s so hard to get good math teachers. So people ill equipped often end up teaching math. Probably frequently contributing to the downward spiral in mathematics in the US.

    Part of the problem is that if you don’t like the subject you aren’t apt to teach it remotely as well as someone passionate about it. I remember reading several papers back in the 90’s arguing that one problem with women in mathematics in college was that so many women teaching mathematics in elementary school were afraid of it or hated it. This was picked up by girls in class. I’ve no idea if that line of theory stood up under closer scrutiny. (I have to admit a strong skepticism towards a lot of educational research)

  27. in my ideal HS, the PE teacher would have a doctorate in exercise physiology or nutrition, but given that exercise science/kinesiology is a probably a popular undergrad major for future PE teachers (if this is not true then the situation is less depressing than I think it is), it seems that concentration doesn’t attract enough people who are interested in how to judge whether a study is well constructed, repeatable and falsifiable and relate that skill to students (given how much information is available, a primary ‘life skill’ should be knowing the process of evaluating and interpreting studies such that the student can make their own choices)

  28. plutosdad

    I think some of the PE teachers posting are missing the point or thinking they are being attacked. This doesn’t mean that PE teachers are necessarily bad, but it probably means schools don’t take PE and health education seriously enough. They take a coach and ask him to teach health classes (or drivers ed, or math, etc).

    Schools don’t look for qualified candidates and push for curriculum that will really help kids with their bodies, health, nutrition etc. They don’t pick “good” coaches who really know how to bring out the best in kids. There is a lot kids need to know that often parents don’t seem to know.

    I think all of us who played sports can easily say our coach was one of the biggest adult influences in our lives outside of our parents. But even then, that was one coach, out of dozens of PE teachers who didn’t teach me those important life skills.

  29. What I’d like to see is a comparison of how competitive the different teaching fields are – that is, how many people apply for each open position in PE vs. Eng/Sci.

  30. Theron Cross (@torquedu)

    I just think it’s funny that we’re equating SAT scores with intelligence. Think about who most PE teachers were in school: athletes. These are the kids who are really good with their bodies – Howard Gardener would call them kinesthetically intelligent. So they spent 2.5 hours at basketball practice after school instead of focusing on their math homework. Does that really make them less intelligent?

    I’m a physics teacher, and have been humbled by the ability of many PE teachers in their abilities to TEACH their subjects. It’s time for people to redefine intelligence as something more than the ability to regurgitate facts and exercise-level skills on a Saturday morning when you’re 17 years old.

  31. Stephen Brain

    The key quote is this one:

    Physical and special education instructors, as well as elementary school teachers, are less intelligent than the average college graduate.

    Why is is presumed that the SAT the sole determinant of intelligence? Leaving aside the debated question of whether one “intelligence” exists, why should we allow that one test earn the distinction of determining what an individual’s intelligence is?

    The whole idea that there is one useful intellectual skill set and that the SAT measures it is false. I would rather have a kindergarten teacher who is kind and patient and loving and knows how to motivate children to learn the building blocks of language and mathematics than one who is “brilliant” in the narrow way defined here.

  32. Jesse F

    As someone who has taught SAT prep for literally half of his life and thus could get a perfect score while on two tabs of acid and listening to the collected works of Conlon Nancarrow, I find it baffling that SAT scores would be uncritically used as a direct proxy for intelligence. Even ETS hasn’t made a claim that ridiculous for decades. Try harder, Razib.

  33. scott

    Not sure if random statistics have much value other than starting the conversation. With respect to elementary school teachers, it is far more valuable that they have a high emotional intelligence than book smarts. Of course, EI is very hard to define, much less measure. Second thought. In my experience, most school administrators start off as PE teachers and coaches. Think about that.

  34. Dick

    What on earth makes you think that a lower SAT score indicates lower intelligence? The taking of multiple-choice tests is a craft that can be learned. In my younger days, I was incredibly skilled at it, even though my college grades were below average. If I could have made my living taking multiple-choice tests, I’d be very rich today. 🙂

  35. Alex Beh

    “Physical and special education instructors, as well as elementary school teachers, are less intelligent than the average college graduate.”

    WOW. Really Razib? SAT scores measure intelligence? Really? Wow, that’s one of the dumbest things I’ve ever seen in print. I’m going to save this, and use it whenever I can as an example without peer of the incredible ignorance of some genetics bloggers.

    Since you don’t seem to know, here’s how this works: the test is eminently coachable. I say that because for the last ten years I’ve made a comfortable income off coaching students. As long as you cram a student’s head full with vocab words, and force them to read, read, read, they will become much better at the test. This is best understood by looking at teachers themselves: when I took my PSAT at the age of 15 I got around a 500 on Verbal. I studied my ass off, and got a 620 a year later. I took even more time to cram for the third test and got a 700. Apparently I became more intelligent by memorizing obsolete vocabulary words like “ingenue”.

    Once I got into the industry, though, the scales really fell from my eyes. Full-time test prep instructors spend a good portion of every day with the content of the test. After a few months of doing it, I was able to get a *perfect score* on the SAT. Not just the verbal either, the math section too. Every single goddamn test, practice or real. And this is normal for test prep instructors – sometimes we play a game where we try to finish practice tests with a perfect score using the least amount of time, e.g. finish in half the time allocated. It becomes pretty easy with repetition. ETS attempted to address this problem in 2005, which is why your data stops there, by restructuring the test but it really didn’t work.

    Whatever the “intelligence” of me and my students, the SAT is clearly a poor measure of it. The more we prep for it, the better we do. Students who have good curriculums in reading comprehension and value rhetorical skill do very well, those who don’t, don’t. Wealthy enough to hire private tutors? Enjoy tailored lesson plans from virtuosos.

    I’m not going to get into demolishing (or even reading) the rest of this tripe because I don’t care to waste my time. Anyone who thinks the SAT is a measure of intelligence and compares college grads to their test performance five or six years earlier as high school juniors has lost all credibility on education. I recommend you retract this statement if you don’t want to become the fool of the test prep community.

  36. Jim

    I’ll point out that SAT scores don’t correlate directly with “intelligence” and there are various kinds of intelligence necessary to teach children effectively. Many brilliant rocket scientists, despite off-the-chart test scores, would not fit well as elementary school or special education teachers.

    If it was as simple as hiring people with the highest test scores, we would have solved the problem by now.

  37. TimPundit

    Try to get certified in Michigan for SPED. Then tell me Michigan SPED teachers aren’t smart.

    SPED teachers go thru programs akin to medical schools. I doubt the average person can handle it.

  38. Ralph D.

    Why would anyone with above-average grades and other opportunities choose teaching anymore? Teachers are constantly demonized by elected officials. We keep talking about the importance of education but if a teacher makes a slightly above-average salary or has good benefits folks start screaming about how taxpayers are being ripped off. We expect teachers to have better skills and intelligence than an average office worker but we want to treat and pay them the same.

    While I would love for all teachers to be highly intelligent, I don’t see why that should be the most important criteria for an elementary school teacher as opposed to a high school teacher. Anyone who has worked with large groups of young kids (as I have though I’m not a teacher) knows that half the game is being able to connect with kids and manage a group of seven-year olds. Even a well-behaved group of second-graders can be challenging and stressful to manage. A teacher with an average SAT score who is dynamite with kids can probably do a better job teaching 5 X 6 than someone with a high IQ who is awkward around children.

  39. As an education professor and former elementary teacher, I have to take issue with Razib’s concept of intelligence. Although, for some reason he uses the SAT to point out the relative “intelligence” of teachers, the SAT is not and never has been a measure of intelligence. In fact, many of us in this century see so called measures of intelligence as antiquated and quantitatively biased. Howard Gardner’s work on multiple intelligences, for example, has expanded our view that there is more than one way to be “smart” (bodily-kinesthetic, inter-personal, musical, spatial, etc.).

    As a former teacher and a current teacher educator, I have studied exemplary teachers all over the world. I liken the best ones to Jedi masters. They have this other worldly intuition that could NEVER be assessed on any form of standardized test. To be great, you have to know each of your student’s skills, weaknesses, interests, passions, and vulnerabilities. You have to be profoundly empathetic and savvy with how you use that information to motivate each of them. And, in classes with 20-35 students, you have to be an exceptional multi-tasker, because you must constantly monitor and adjust what you are saying and modeling to fit each of your student’s needs and interests. This requires stamina, flexibility, courage, empathy, and, yes, an intellect that can process all of that information and deliver the goods, on your feet, seven hours straight, five days a week. I don’t know any item on the SAT that can come close to measuring that.

  40. MBL

    I’ve been teaching for ten years, and I think it’s fair to say that the range of intellect in the schools I’ve worked in fairly accurately mirrors what I’ve seen in the rest of the world; a handful of people who are really bright, most of the staff in the middle, and another handful who make you wonder how they manage to tie their shoes in the morning. It shouldn’t be surprising.

    That said, particularly in the case of the three kinds of teachers who scored low(er) on their SATs (and let’s recognize that we’re not dealing with an enormous number of points here,) I’d like to point out that special ed, elementary ed, and phys ed all require one to have a different kind of intelligence than what is measured by simple math and verbal scores. You don’t have to be an intellectual whiz kid to teach kindergarten, or to work with a seventh grader who is still struggling to read basic words and learn simple math facts. You do have to have a pretty high emotional IQ and a substantially higher level of empathy and intuitiveness than is displayed in the general public, however. Just because they didn’t score as high on the SAT as, say, the math teachers (and I’m a math teacher) doesn’t automatically make them “not as smart.” Even phys ed; I scored a 1510 on the SAT when I last took it back in the early nineties (I’m generally in the 95+ percentile in any standardized test I take) and I would be a miserably poor gym teacher. The gym teacher in our building doesn’t have remotely the level of book learnin’ I’ve got but he’s still incredibly skilled at his job.

    Again, are there dumb teachers? Yeah. Definitely. I could point at a few. But this article isn’t measuring the right things to make that point about subfields of teaching.

  41. someone with a verbal SAT score of 500 is, on average, less intelligent than someone with a verbal SAT score of 700. chill on outrage and shock. it’s not interesting, nor is it useful (i’m no awesomely impressed). and i do get to select what comments get published. generic comments about multiple intelligence do not impress me.

  42. kimmah

    @1. An English education major for secondary education in most states (I don’t know 100%) requires an English degree and some form of education minor or double major. Same for the other specialties. In addition, in many states and to be highly qualified under the old NCLB, science teachers, for example, must take qualifying exams in each area that they wish to be certified in: chemistry, physics, physical science, etc.

  43. kimmah

    Let me preface my point here by saying that I do not think we need teachers who can’t read or do math. I’m not suggesting that education is the most rigorous college major, nor that those SAT scores are anything to write home about.

    That said, do we really need kindergarten teachers who score 580 on their math SAT? Or PE teachers with a high score in English? It isn’t as if the SAT is testing what the average person needs to succeed in life. The tests are designed to highlight pure academic knowledge, not the ability to reason or communicate or think up creative ways to teach multiplication tables.

    The comments here are a bit ironic to me because I wonder how many people are in careers where they would need even an average SAT score in math? Or ACT, since a number of states use that as their high school benchmark exam instead of the SAT. I don’t think I know five people in my area who took the SAT.

    Also, I am going to call b.s. on the idea that any of these test scores are true indicators of who is more intelligent than whom. I’ve taught some absolutely terrible test takers that could blow you away in a debate or amaze you with their artistic ability or solve any trig problem put before them if not timed and not in a high stress situation. I’ve also known some absolute social dolts who probably scored in the 95th percentile on every standardized test they ever took and I wouldn’t want them teaching my elementary school kids how to read or what planets are in the solar system.

  44. 1) just to be clear, i never said PE teachers need to be smart.

    2) i believe that the average SAT score of a population is a reasonable reflection of intellectual aptitudes. please spare me the smart people who score low and stupid people who score high, as well as your own personal journey of variation in outcomes. and if you don’t think intelligence exists, that’s fine, but don’t pretend as if i have to agree with you.

  45. Lee

    Razib, I also agree that intelligence exists, but I don’t believe it can be defined within the narrow confines of the SAT. Perhaps it would bring greater clarity to the discussion if you defined your concept of intelligence.

    I also have to take issue with this statement:

    “i believe that the average SAT score of a population is a reasonable reflection of intellectual aptitudes. ”

    According to your logic, and the charts you include above, blacks have less intellectual aptitude than Asians. I assume that is not your point or opinion.

    Perhaps the point you are trying to make, in this article and the accompanying discussion, is that certain education majors struggle academically in ways that others do not. And, in that, I would agree.

  46. kimmah

    I don’t see the argument that intelligence doesn’t exist; you might want to brush up on your reading comprehension skills.

    If you think test scores are a true reflection of the intelligence of people, and not academic preparedness, the ability to study well or pay a great test-taking tutor, then you haven’t been in a high school lately.

    If you don’t want to hear personal experience, but would rather vomit up some statistical red meat designed to cause consternation and outrage by the general public and some sense of intellectual superiority by those who already thought PE teachers were stupid, then perhaps you should preface your information with “I know everything and I’m not interested in discussions that don’t agree with my way of thinking.”

  47. Razib, can you please substantiate how you measure the difference in intelligence by using verbal SAT scores? Is there any research to back this up or is this your assumption?

    yes, SAT scores are correlated with IQ (something i think you’ll find 100 percent unsurprising):

    Can you also explain how, on the one hand, you say that PE teachers are less intelligent than other teachers, based on Verbal SAT, while you also demonstrate a significant difference in Verbal SAT scores based on race? According to your logic, blacks are less intelligent than Asians. I assume that is not your point or public opinion. However, you can’t have it both ways.

    the average measured iQ of african americans is ~85, the average measured IQ of asian americans is ~103 (last i checked). second, are physical and special education teachers a community and culture with a specific history? if you think the SAT has a racial bias you don’t necessarily think it has a bias against people who become special education teachers! that’s the standard explanation for the black results, whether you accept it or not, so it’s trivially clear how you can ‘have it both ways.’ are you being serious, or just wasting my time?

    i “take issue” with you not thinking ahead. seriously.

    and is anyone surprised that PE teachers are kind of dumb? if you ‘take issue’ with that assertion i’d be curious how many PE teachers you are comfortable with teaching your children social studies.

  48. #46, ok, PE teachers can’t study worth shit. happy?

  49. Jesse F

    Razib. I don’t know what intelligence is, but I’m pretty certain that the belief that it’s a one-dimensional quantifiable property that can be measured via bubble tests like they were some sort of magical thermometer is a pretty good sign that one lacks it. Or perhaps you just can’t reason for shit.

  50. ackbark

    I’d just like to say I had plenty of gym teachers and every one of them was a blithering idiot. 100% blithering idiots. A universal trait.

    That they may have been great at communicating with other idiots is hardly relevant.

  51. #51, still, a gym teacher is probably smarter than the typical student they supervise.

  52. Kiwiguy

    ***, Perhaps it would bring greater clarity to the discussion if you defined your concept of intelligence. ***

    See Steve Hsu’s various posts on psychometrics and the linked paper by Linda Gottfredson “Why g matters: the complexity of ordinary life”.

  53. Alex Beh

    Shorter Razib: “i believe that the average SAT score of a population is a reasonable reflection of intellectual aptitudes. please spare me the smart people who score low and stupid people who score high, as well as your own personal journey of variation in outcomes”…because doing so will tear up my paper-thin justification to be an asshole towards other people

  54. #54, aka Bret Beheim, i don’t tolerate the asshole behavior of reframing what other people believe in your own words to make your own argument neater. so go fuck yourself.

  55. and just for future reference: anyone imputing a position to me won’t get their comment published. (and of course will result in banning)

  56. Kiwiguy

    ***“i believe that the average average SAT score of a population is a reasonable reflection of intellectual aptitudes***

    Well that is what SAT measures apparently.

    “Meredith C. Frey and Douglas K. Detterman, researchers at Case Western Reserve University, have shown that students’ SAT test scores correlate as highly as, and sometimes higher than, IQ tests correlate with each other. This is strong evidence that the SAT is a de facto intelligence test. Their findings will be published in the June issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the American Psychological Society.

    While this finding may be surprising to many who take the test, it was no surprise to the researchers. The origins of the SAT can be traced back to intelligence tests that were originally given to screen entrants into the armed forces. Many who study intelligence had suspected that the SAT was an intelligence test though it seems no one had ever investigated the relationship.”

  57. Kiwiguy, stop engaging. many of these people aren’t interested in a real discussion about differences. they’re pissed that i won’t cave and concede immediately because of my adherence to Falsehood. i should probably close this thread.

  58. JunJay

    As a PE teacher with a BA in Philsophy and a MA in Physical Education, I would have to classify you as smarter then 99% of the population for the simple fact that you call us PE teachers and not Gym teachers!

  59. dt

    I second 59!! I am a PE teacher in CT with a BS in Exercise Physiology and an MS in Nutrition. You can say what you want about verbal and math test scores, but I am sure if you were to measure “happiness” and “quality of life” in ANY job field, PE teachers would score off of the charts!!!!

  60. #61, probably. that being said i recall that the ‘freaks’ at my middle/HS would really act out weirdly in PE….

  61. ackbark

    52. alas, in my high school that would have been ‘beating them with experience’.

  62. RafeK

    Its true that the average PE coach is an an intellectual pauper and its a tragedy. Done properly teaching physical culture is very cognitively demanding. In order to optimize the performance of my athletes I have to analyze complex movements by eye, idenfitify the root causes for movement patterns, then figure out a out a method to strengthen attributes and fix problems, which has to be communicated to the athlete effectively. Considering the complexity of human movement thats not a simple job.

    I spend about 5 hours a week reviewing literature relevant to my classes, 3 hours or so devoted to video analysis then another 5 or so devoted to writing up curriculum. At this point I spend more time in intellectual preparation for classes then teaching. In order to optimize the performance of my athletes. Though it should be noted that I am writing up the programming for 5x as many classes as I teach

    If the average PE teacher is of below average intelligence the quality of our physical education is going to be really poor. Most students are basically movement retarded, and they have been taught a load of crap about how to train.

    The body and mind work in concert, through physical training we develop the capacity to exert will, the ability to deal with fear and frustration, we increase the plasticity of the nervous system by challenging it with complex motor problems, and through training high force and velocity we increase neural output, all of that effects cognitive performance and quality of life.

    Leaving that tasks to a couple days a week lead by dim witted ex jock is extremely short sighted.

  63. Dexter Hate

    “it’s not interesting, nor is it useful (i’m no awesomely impressed). and i do get to select what comments get published. generic comments about multiple intelligence do not impress me.”

    I doubt that it’s the goal of anyone here to impress you. It’s likely the goal of many here to show you that you are factually incorrect in your assumptions.

    “i believe that the average SAT score of a population is a reasonable reflection of intellectual aptitudes. please spare me the smart people who score low and stupid people who score high, as well as your own personal journey of variation in outcomes. and if you don’t think intelligence exists, that’s fine, but don’t pretend as if i have to agree with you.”

    In fact, the average SAT score of a population is NOT a reasonable reflection of intellectual aptitudes. If you think that there is any test that alone can measure “intellectual aptitudes,” then you have much more reading to do. Nobody in academics actually believes this. At all.

    In fact, the company doesn’t even claim it:
    “Because the SAT was devised as a tool to identify talented students from underprivileged backgrounds, it was thought of as a test that would measure an innate ability referred to as “aptitude,” rather than abilities that these students might have developed through school.

    “When these tests were originally developed,” said Harvard social policy professor Christopher Jencks, “people really believed that if they did the job right they would be able to measure this sort of underlying, biological potential. And they often called it aptitude, sometimes they called it genes, sometimes intelligence.”

    According to the College Board, the SAT now does not measure any innate ability.”

    Griping about people holding you to specific, factual language is really sad, coming from a science writer with a science background. You should know that precise language is critical for communicating scientific ideas. Behavior like that makes scientists think you don’t know what you’re talking about.

  64. In fact, the average SAT score of a population is NOT a reasonable reflection of intellectual aptitudes. If you think that there is any test that alone can measure “intellectual aptitudes,” then you have much more reading to do. Nobody in academics actually believes this. At all.

    WHY WOULD YOU THINK THAT I THINK THAT ANY TEST ‘ALONE’ CAN MEASURE INTELLECTUAL APTITUDES?!?! this is what pisses me off with you people and why i ban you. you come in here, and just start imputing all sorts of crap. start with the assumption that your interlocutor is a total moron, and see how that works.

    the SAT or any given test is a measure correlated with various life outcomes. i don’t take a strong position on whether there is a useful as a measure of some real concrete general intelligence factor in a neurobiological sense (probably is to some extent since it’s heritable). but i think it’s obviously no coincidence that any standardized test score shows that physics PhDs score higher than social work PhDs, on average, and that most people would stay that the former is more cognitively demanding in terms of abstraction aptitudes.

    and nice name check on christopher jencks (i am aware that the pbs page comes up high on google :-), but the field of psychometrics and educational testing has a crap load of differing views. instead of name checking you back again i will just observe that these tests strongly correlate with academic outcomes. and i think ETS game of semantics is necessary because of the fraught history of intelligence testing and its impact on their business.

  65. Joe

    This article has a couple of flaws. The SAT test does NOT measure intelligence, at best it measures reasoning skills to a specific set of problems. It was designed to test how well students would do in a college setting. So therefore you are using a test that showed students would do poorly in college and trying to equate it to their intelligence level, which any psychologist would tell you is difficult and requires numerous tests to get even close. Second off, you are measuring this against people who PASSED college. Therefore they defied the odds and did well in college despite the SATs prediction that they would not do so… Perhaps it does not do so well at measuring this?

    Second, the SAT is notoriously culturally and ethnically biased. An aboriginal for instance would do very poorly on the SAT, but your 1600 SAT student would die in the outback after 20 min… Not because either of them is stupid, but because they are out of their element. The SAT was designed by rich academics from New Jersey, the home of the educational Testing Service who first designed and now administers it. It only measures problem solving and reasoning well if you fit the profile it was designed for.

    Thirdly, the data is a correlation at best, meaning their may be some sort of relationship between the data of how they did prior to university on the SAT and their intelligence and/or how good of a teacher they are. It is important to realize that is not PROOF of anything, it does not even show any sort of causal relationship.

    Lastly, as an Exercise Science professor (yes PE falls under our degree), I can tell you its what they learn AFTER they take the SAT that matters. Today’s PE degree requires a lot of intense science: Motor development, bio mechanics, exercise physiology, developmental psychology, etc. Not to mention all the health and health methods relating classes. It is not a cake walk.

    Lastly, think about this… In the late 1980s, and 1990s local school districts began to cut and scale back health and PE programs (especially at the elementary level where it is needed the most) and the obesity rates have tripled since then (again I am not suggesting there is a direct cause, because there are too many other variables, just a possible relationship or correlation). Now the obesity crisis is fast becoming the number 1 killer of Americans (see Center for Disease Control, 2010) overtaking heart disease (which is also worsened by obesity). This will be the first generation in over 150 years in which the average life span will not increase higher than previous generations…

    And before you go running to privatization for the answers, think about Enron, Bernie Madoff, and the current recession and remember this: Corporations are DESIGNED to make money, not to educate children… When the rubber hits the road, do you want the future of this country to go to the lowest bidder?

  66. Kiwiguy

    ***i will just observe that these tests strongly correlate with academic outcomes. ***

    Apologies, but I can’t resist a name check – Steven Pinker:

    “To study something scientifically, you first have to measure it, and psychologists have developed tests for many mental traits. And contrary to popular opinion, the tests work pretty well: they give a similar measurement of a person every time they are administered, and they statistically predict life outcomes like school and job performance, psychiatric diagnoses and marital stability.”

  67. Dexter Hate


    This statement:

    “i believe that the average SAT score of a population is a reasonable reflection of intellectual aptitudes.”

    Did you forget to mention the adjuncts? If so, I retract my statement and apologize.

    If any doctoral student of mine ranted in all caps, they’d fail for lack of professionalism.

  68. Did you forget to mention the adjuncts? If so, I retract my statement and apologize.

    look, a reasonable reflection does not mean a perfect reflection. most predictive tests/variables have less than 1.0 correlation with outcomes/dependent variables. that means that there are other factors at work, and/or the test is an imperfect measure.

    If any doctoral student of mine ranted in all caps, they’d fail for lack of professionalism.

    well, i’m not your doctoral student. so what’s the point?

  69. It only measures problem solving and reasoning well if you fit the profile it was designed for.

    yes. it had east asian and jews in mind.

    the SAT is notoriously culturally and ethnically biased.

    this is an urban legend. even christopher jencks, name checked above, admits that this assertion does not hold up to scholarly inquiry.

  70. MBL

    This was an interesting thread until you started shitting all over it, Razib. Multiple intelligences “don’t impress” you? Then you’re clearly not smart enough to be a teacher.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


See More


RSS Razib’s Pinboard

Edifying books

Collapse bottom bar