What makes a good teacher

It’s easier to identify good teachers than to train them, writes Paul Peterson on Education Next.

A just-released paper prepared by Matthew M. Chingos and myself for a Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance conference on merit pay (which will take place on June 3-4) shows that Florida teachers who majored in education in college are no better at teaching math and reading to elementary- and middle-school students than those who did not. Even those teachers who attended the most selective universities in Florida, such as the state’s flagship university, the University of Florida, are no better at lifting student performance in reading and math than those who attended Florida’s less prestigious institutions. Nor can we identify any benefit from earning a master’s degree, despite the fact that school districts tend to pay 8 percent to 10 percent more to teachers who hold such a degree.

Over their first 10 years in the classroom, teachers become more effective, Peterson writes. But, except for elementary reading, teachers “show no further gains — and some declines – in effectiveness as teachers enter their second decade of teaching.” Yet salaries climb steeply for teachers with more than 10 years of experience.

The one bright spot in our data set is the finding that teachers who are certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards are, in fact, better teachers. The board asks teachers to submit evidence of quality teaching. After a careful review of their work, they certify about half the applicants.

It’s possible to identify and reward effective teachers, rather than paying more simply for paper credentials or years in the classroom, Peterson writes.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan wants ineffective teacher education programs to shape up or shut down, reports AP.  But teacher ed is notoriously resistant to change.

Via Inside School Research, a new study of teachers who switch schools finds New York City principals hired higher-quality teachers, as measured by pre-service qualifications and value-added scores, even though principals didn’t know the applicants’ scores. Principals like to hire Teach for America teachers, the study found.

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  1. I’ve not seen any reports showing that National Board certified teachers are any better. Do *valid* studies exist?

  2. I’ve heard just the opposite. That during the time the teacher is certifying, the achievement levels of their students actually declines. Presumably this is because certifying is so time intensive.

  3. And the certifying process is a load of garbage. It’s all about planning and curriculum of a politically correct sort. Very little of it is about actual upfront teaching.

  4. The fact that the *existing programs* for teacher training are ineffective doesn’t prove, of course, that teacher training is inherently ineffective. I suspect that if you put the people in charge of our present-day ed schools in charge of training infantry, you’d get a lot of incompetent soldiers, and if you put them in charge of training pilots, you’d get a lot of very dangerous pilots.

  5. Ex-PhysicsTeacher says:

    David Foster, you’re absolutely right.

    Present day education schools are to education what dark ages medical education was to medical education.

  6. Roger Sweeny says:

    Do teachers really become more effective or do the worst ones just drop out? There are a lot fewer teachers with ten years experience than there are teachers in their first year. The average effectiveness almost has to go up.

  7. These comparisons to other occupations are stupid. It’s hard to teach teaching, and for that reason, we shouldn’t have ed schools. But there’s no point in pretending that the military would do better at producing teachers, or vice versa.

  8. The reference to the military might be better taken as an analogy. Perhaps the fact that older teachers steadily decline in effectiveness can be likened to the effectiveness of a soldier over time. If a soldier cannot move up the ranks in a timely fashion he is eventually discharged from the military (who does not want a load of fifty-year-olds on the front lines fighting our wars). Are there any studies that show the majority of effective teachers eventually move out of the classroom either to a different career or up the ladder in the wide world of education? Might that explain the declines in effectiveness for those entering their second decade in the classroom?

    There might also be something to the fact that few of those teachers go back for “real” training in new strategies, which is in part due to the fact that quality training is hard to find. Perhaps if more people demand better training programs for new teachers and for teachers in the classroom the ineffectiveness of ed schools could be reduced.

    Along the same vein, we did not get rid of medical training after the dark ages, but enhanced it. Perhaps the analogy is fitting for many schools of education today, but that does not mean they should be shut down altogether.

  9. Good teachers must know their subject very well. Many teachers, alas, do not.

  10. Richard Aubrey says:

    David Foster: Please to capitalize “Infantry”. It’s an extremely proper noun.

  11. Good teaching is like pornography.

    I know it when I see it.

  12. Isn’t someone going to mention Doug Lemov’s recent book, Teach Like a Champion? He discusses 49 specific actions taken by highly effective teachers and even demonstrates them on a DVD included with the book. Although it’s geared to classroom teachers, even a homeschooling mom like myself can learn much from it about how to be a more effective teacher.
    Being a good teacher isn’t some sort of mystical inborn quality any more that doctors and pilots are born such without training. I believe that most people can learn to be good teachers if they are actually taught the skills to be effective. It’s unfortunate that specific classroom management techniques get little coverage at universities. Instead, way too much time is spent designing bulletin boards, introspective craft projects, and making up board games, as reported by my ed school trained husband.

  13. David Foster: Please to capitalize “Infantry”. It’s an extremely proper noun.

    Not as he’s used it.

  14. Catherine,

    I read the New York Times magazine profile of Lemov. True, he’s identified a bunch of useful techniques. But another thing he learned in the course of his observations of good teachers was that technique alone does not suffice –at all. He witnessed technically strong teachers mis-educating kids because they didn’t know their subject. Valid technique (as opposed to the bogus, touchy-feely technique they preach in ed school) plus robust erudition are the keys to good teaching.

  15. Adding to the inept analogies:

    Are there any studies that show the majority of effective teachers eventually move out of the classroom either to a different career or up the ladder in the wide world of education?

    Are there any studies showing the majority of effective lawyers moving out of the courtroom? Doctors moving out of the operating room?

    “Moving up the ladder” in teaching means moving into admin–a whole different job that many avoid like the plague, while other teachers are just marking time until they get to admin.

    Being a good teacher isn’t some sort of mystical inborn quality any more that doctors and pilots are born such without training.

    How do you know? We haven’t figured out how to make good teachers yet. I think it’s very likely they are born, rather than taught.

  16. Michael E. Lopez, Esq. says:

    Robert Wright –

    You’re thinking of obscenity… but I couldn’t agree more.

    What’s interesting if we accept this is the question of the degree to which people making observations of say, the same 100 teachers or so, might disagree about which ones are good and which ones are bad. I suspect that the disagreement would be very minimal, but I am guessing so I could very easily be mistaken.

  17. It’s an interesting discussion.

    Not “what goes into making a good teacher” but why anyone’d discuss the subject.

    It’s not like the skill has any professional value so why all the concern? Why the attention?

  18. (Allen): “It’s not like the skill has any professional value so why all the concern? Why the attention?”

    Do I sense a note of sarcasm?

    The NEA/AFT/AFSCME cartel’s schools (the “public” schools) operate within a paradox of their own devising. They must maintain some notion of specialized expertise to justify the State’s compulsory removal of children from their parents’ care, yet Colleges of Education have never empirically demonstrated that they contribute anything of value and K-12 schools regularly blame deficiencies of the home environment for the failure of poor and minority children.

  19. (Malcolm Kirkpatrick): “Do I sense a note of sarcasm?”

    That would be one possible interpretation but no, it was a direct question without subtext or guile.

    Why bother asking the question if the question has no professional value as a function of the institution of public education? Obviously, the question’s asked not because it’s professional relevant but because asking the question is reflexive; the assumption that teaching skill matters is an extension of the importance placed on learning.

    So folks, anyone want to offer a reason for wondering what it is that goes into the making of a good teacher even though there’s no professional value to being a good teacher?

  20. Ponderosa says:

    “Good” is a vague term.

    “Effective at conveying knowledge in a memorable way.”

    “Effective at generating enthusiasm about school in general.”

    “Effective at running an organized classroom.”

    “Effective at establishing warm and supportive rapport with students.”

    “Effective at implementing the methodology du jour, regardless of whether it’s good for kids.”

    These are separate and often-not-overlapping definitions of “good”.

  21. A highly effective teacher can be instrumental in giving a student the skills needed to lift themselves out of poverty. That would seem to be of great professional value. I am puzzled by the statement that “there’s no professional value to being a good teacher.” Research consistently demonstrates the importance of teacher quality on student achievement. Currently, there may be no monetary reward for being a highly effective teacher. This does not mean that it has no professional value.

  22. (Ray):”Currently, there may be no monetary reward for being a highly effective teacher. This does not mean that it has no professional value.

    Okay, there is some value.

    And that would be?

  23. The value would be in the higher level of achievement attained by the students of a skilled teacher.

    My sister is a highly skilled allergist who has a strong background in science and is highly ethical. She follows the latest research indicating best practices when ordering allergy tests for her patients. Certain doctors in her community either don’t understand the research or, as is more likely, do not share her high ethical standards. They order many more tests than are actually called for so they earn more money. Would you suggest that her honesty and high standards have no professional value because they do not bring her more money? Money is not always the best measure of professional value.

  24. Allen, I see your point and I’ve often wondered about that myself.

  25. (Ray):The value would be in the higher level of achievement attained by the students of a skilled teacher.

    And that higher level of achievement by the students translates into what sort of professional value?

    Does the teacher get a pay bump? Establish professional development facilities to impart their methodologies? Product endorsements? Get on the paid speaking circuit? There are probably other rewards of a distinctly professional nature so feel free to add to the list, but which of those rewards commonly accrues to teachers as a result of the higher level of achievement by the students?

    That answer, as you well know since you’re trying to evade the answer, is “none”.

    Robert, the answer, once you accept that teaching skill has no professional value, is obvious: teaching skill is valued by parents but provides no benefit to anyone in the public education system. It’s not just teachers who see no professional benefit from the acquisition and sharpening of their skills, no one does. The principal of the school doesn’t. The superintendent doesn’t. The board members don’t get any distinct benefit from having excellent teachers working for them.

    There are obvious exceptions but that’s what they inevitably area, exceptions. There are no institutional benefits in the public education system to the perfection of teaching skills. Where those skills do enjoy rewards it’s inevitably the result of some unusual, and local, condition. The principal, personally, values teaching skill or the superintendent or enough board members. Where those special circumstances don’t apply then there’s nothing to reward teaching skill at all.

  26. Michael E. Lopez says:

    The important word in Allen’s point — which is a good one — is “public.” The phenomenon that he is framing for us is the lack of any real consequences for performance variation in the public sector.

    Now, if public school teachers are making more than private school teachers (as they often are), then if you generalize to the profession as a whole, even the private institutions and their employees and administrators fail to realize any professional benefits for hiring excellent instructors — because the opportunity cost of not teaching at a public school essentially wipes out any benefits that might accrue with respect to a counterfactual situation in which lesser teachers were hired. You’d still have the marginal benefit, but viewed from outside the profession there’s no benefit at all.

    It has always struck me as peculiarly odd that private employment agreements are subject to bankruptcy and associated modifications, but public contracts are considered inviolate.

    Maybe I’ll start writing an article on that. Hmmm.

    Anyway, I pretty much agree with Allen’s point. I just wanted to expand on it a bit.

  27. You free marketeers miss so much from your Ivory Tower, sky-high perspective.

    Down here on the ground we can see stuff like this: a mediocre private school teacher’s students doing quite well on standardized tests because those kids come from high-achieving homes and there are no class disruptors; meanwhile a very bright and hard-working public school teacher’s students floundering because the kids have little background knowledge, can’t read well, don’t study and don’t pay attention. The kids who do want to learn are starved of good instruction because the teacher is constantly catering to the needs of the weak and or disruptive students.

    The free market does not have the solutions to education’s problems. What we need is grassroots support for proven solutions such as a Core Knowledge curriculum to replace the vacuous progressive ed practices now in vogue, and new laws that will empower schools and teachers to remove disruptive students.

  28. Michael E. Lopez says:

    So Ben… let me get this straight.

    Low teacher quality means almost nothing in comparison to child background, and high teacher quality means almost nothing in comparison to child background. So what you’re saying is that teacher quality is essentially irrelevant?

    If so, what good does a new curriculum do?

    And I’m all for kicking students out of school, permanently. Public education should be a privilege, not a right. And it’s human nature not to value something unless it’s subject to being lost.

    But the fact that you would suggest this as a solution only reinforces the fact that you appear to think that the problem — to the extent there is one — lies with the students, and that the teachers are irrelevant.

    And, really… maybe you’re right. That seems perfectly compatible with the fact that there aren’t any professional benefits in the field.

  29. You misunderstood my point: teacher quality does matter, but I fear that freemarketeers are looking at high-achieving private schools and saying, “Aha, see what fire-at-will can achieve!” when in fact it’s many other factors (e.g. parents’ education focus) that leads to those good results.

    Good curriculum a la E.D. Hirsch can make mediocre teachers much better. This, more than anything else, is what separates us from top-flight ed systems like Finland’s and France’s. We’re never going to have the entire graduating classes of Yale and Harvard fill our millions of classrooms –the Teach for America dream is a mirage. We have to work with regular folk. But our current curriculum void guarantees that most of these regular teachers will be ineffective. Give them a smart, effective curriculum, please!

    By the way, Michael, you really should read E.D. Hirsch’s The Knowledge Deficit or the Making of Americans if you haven’t already.

  30. Close the ed schools–let’s see what happens. Or, don’t we already know what will happen?

  31. I agree, anon. The ed schools are preaching false doctrine. Their student-centric theory is to Hirsch’s subject-centered theory what Ptolemy was to Copernicus.


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