Finding, making, and evaluating great teachers

February 26, 2010 at 8:32 am 3 comments

I earlier referenced an article in The Atlantic that asked, “What makes a great teacher?” The entire article by Amanda Ripley is a must-read for anyone interested in human capital, but I want to highlight some of the factors that Teach for America has identified as being the most predictive of teacher success:

Teachers who scored high in “life satisfaction”—reporting that they were very content with their lives—were 43 percent more likely to perform well in the classroom than their less satisfied colleagues. These teachers “may be more adept at engaging their pupils, and their zest and enthusiasm may spread to their students,” the study suggested.

In general, though, Teach for America’s staffers have discovered that past performance—especially the kind you can measure—is the best predictor of future performance. Recruits who have achieved big, measurable goals in college tend to do so as teachers. And the two best metrics of previous success tend to be grade-point average and “leadership achievement”—a record of running something and showing tangible results. If you not only led a tutoring program but doubled its size, that’s promising.

Knowledge matters, but not in every case. In studies of high-school math teachers, majoring in the subject seems to predict better results in the classroom. And more generally, people who attended a selective college are more likely to excel as teachers (although graduating from an Ivy League school does not unto itself predict significant gains in a Teach for America classroom). Meanwhile, a master’s degree in education seems to have no impact on classroom effectiveness.

Related: Bill Gates on how to make a teacher great, which begins around the 8:00 mark on the TED talk embedded below. Some notes and quotes from Gates’ presentation:

  • The state of our public school system is stark: “Over 30% of kids [in the United States] never finish high school. For minority kids, it’s over 50%. Even if you graduate from high school, if you’re low income, you have less than a 25% chance of ever completing a college degree. If you’re low income in the United States, you have a higher change of going to jail than you do of getting a four-year degree.”
  • This confronts us with one of the most important questions of our time: “How do you make our education system better?” The answer is “by having great teachers.”
  • The single most important factor on student achievement is teacher quality. For example, “A top quartile teacher will increase the performance of their class, based on test scores, by over 10% in a single year.” This means that if, for just two years, every student in the United States were taught by a top-quartile teacher, then the achievement gap between the U.S. and Asia would disappear entirely. The simple solution, then, is to provide kids with top-quartile teachers. But before you can do this, you need to assess whether they have any commonalities. In other words, what makes a great teacher?
  • Surprisingly, it may not be what most people think. The best teachers are not necessarily the most senior or experienced:  “Once somebody has taught for three years, their teaching quality does not change thereafter.” Nor do they possess master’s degrees in education. In fact, there is absolutely no general effect or correlation between teachers with a master’s degree and the achievement outcomes of their students. Teach for America teachers and math instructors who majored in math while an undergraduate were found to have, on the whole, slightly positive effects on academic achievement. But overwhelmingly, the most predictive variable of teacher quality was their past performance. The specifics that were responsible for past performance, however, are not yet studied well enough. And sadly, “on average, slightly better teachers leave the profession [more than bad teachers.]”
  • Suggestions for how to gather and analyze teacher improvement data, including team teaching and digital video, are discussed.

Finally, in December of 2008, the always provocative Malcolm Gladwell was fascinated by the question, “How do we hire when we can’t tell who’s right for the job?

This is the quarterback problem. There are certain jobs where almost nothing you can learn about candidates before they start predicts how they’ll do once they’re hired. So how do we know whom to choose in cases like that? In recent years, a number of fields have begun to wrestle with this problem, but none with such profound social consequences as the profession of teaching.

Eric Hanushek, an economist at Stanford, estimates that the students of a very bad teacher will learn, on average, half a year’s worth of material in one school year. The students in the class of a very good teacher will learn a year and a half’s worth of material. That difference amounts to a year’s worth of learning in a single year. Teacher effects dwarf school effects: your child is actually better off in a “bad” school with an excellent teacher than in an excellent school with a bad teacher. Teacher effects are also much stronger than class-size effects. You’d have to cut the average class almost in half to get the same boost that you’d get if you switched from an average teacher to a teacher in the eighty-fifth percentile. And remember that a good teacher costs as much as an average one, whereas halving class size would require that you build twice as many classrooms and hire twice as many teachers.

Educational-reform efforts typically start with a push for higher standards for teachers—that is, for the academic and cognitive requirements for entering the profession to be as stiff as possible. But after you’ve seen how complex the elements of effective teaching are, this emphasis on book smarts suddenly seems peculiar. The preschool teacher with the alphabet book was sensitive to her students’ needs and knew how to let the two girls on the right wiggle and squirm without disrupting the rest of the students; the trigonometry teacher knew how to complete a circuit of his classroom in two and a half minutes and make everyone feel as if he or she were getting his personal attention. But these aren’t cognitive skills.

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. jleeger  |  February 26, 2010 at 5:07 pm

    I want to disagree with Bill a little bit. You don’t make an education system better simply by having better teachers. That answer puts a lot of responsibility on individuals and takes responsibility off of other factors/agencies such as state and local governments (who make the policy that the teachers have to follow when teaching), parents (who encourage/discourage and can provide assistance or blockages to a child’s education), and corporations (such as Microsoft, who have a social responsibility to creating educated students).

    What’s an even more interesting question, and one that is completely glossed-over, is “what is education?” The “liberal arts vs. sciences” debate has raged for years in this country, but I’m not even talking about that.

    I’m talking about education itself, not the content of education. Must education in this country (from grade school to doctoral programs) is structured around rule-following, rather than problem-solving (true problem-solving…individual creativity).

    What are the social values implicit in all of the policies we see in effect today?

    It’s funny that Bill Gates would preach about anything, being one of the richest men in the world – essentially the poster-boy for the “system” of our US culture. His wealth depends, in part, on people being followers (rule-followers) rather than creative individuals, on people being surveilled, on people being seen as “markets”…

    So why would he raise a claim for a particular form of education rather than another?

    Well…obviously because it supports his own outcomes (and, by default, the outcomes of people like him)…

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Jason R. Atwood

I'm an avid trail runner and doctoral student at U.C. Berkeley who studies motivation and the relationship between the mind and body. This blog is a forum to share research, news, and musings about these topics of interest. More

Play is the beginning of knowledge.

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