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Guessing at the best teachers

As parents anxiously await the start of another school year and a new teacher for their child, two major national studies remind us that the single most important factor in a student's achievement is the quality of his or her teacher.

Reports by both the National Council on Teacher Quality (Increasing the Odds, 2005) and the New Teacher Project (The Widget Effect, 2009) concur in this finding, which probably surprises no one. Who does not remember a teacher who transformed their attitude about school and, in the process, their life?

So how do we find these teachers for our children? The question seems simple enough. But according to the authors of The Widget Effect, there is only one major problem: "Except for word of mouth from other parents, no one can tell you the answers."

Yes, that's correct — parents, you are involved in a game of chance in identifying the best teachers for your child. Our system of education, which has been analyzed and re-analyzed innumerable times over the last century, offers you about as much chance of finding a great teacher as rolling dice.

A survey of 15,000 teachers and 1,300 school administrators by the New Teacher Project found, "A teacher's effectiveness — the most important factor for schools in improving student achievement — is not measured, recorded or used to inform decision-making in any meaningful way."

So what are these reports telling us — that the public education system in this country has no rational process for measuring teacher effectiveness and provides insufficient, if any, mentoring programs to facilitate teacher success and thus the success of their students? Unfortunately, the answer appears to be a resounding "yes" to both.

Schools rarely collect data on effective teachers, and even when they do, that data are not used to help struggling teachers improve or reward those teachers whose effectiveness is making a difference in student learning.

Beginning teachers, and therefore the students of beginning teachers, seem to suffer most. They receive little or no guidance in their initial years in the classroom, and yet, the New Teacher Project study concludes, these beginning years are the most crucial in the development of teachers.

The evidence is also increasingly clear that ineffective teachers, those who don't make a difference in student achievement, are rarely told so. The National Council on Teacher Quality observed that "more than 99 percent of teachers receive the satisfactory rating." And "at least half of the districts studied have not dismissed a single nonprobationary teacher for poor performance in the past five years."

Both of these important studies debunk a number of other myths about teacher effectiveness.

You no doubt think that graduates of traditional teacher preparation programs, that is, schools and colleges of education, are more effective teachers.

Wrong. "Traditional routes into teaching do not appear to yield more effective teachers than alternative routes … there is no evidence to support policies that bar individuals from the profession because they lack such coursework."

• You probably believe that a teacher with a master's degree is a better teacher than one with just an undergraduate degree.

Wrong. A teacher with a master's degree is no more effective in the classroom than one with an undergraduate degree. But the National Council on Teacher Quality reported that mathematics teachers who had additional coursework in mathematics education and science teachers who had advanced work in physics or chemistry were more effective teachers.

• You also may believe that the longer a teacher is in the classroom the greater the success achieved by his or her students.

Wrong. The studies found no correlation between the length of service and the effectiveness of teaching.

Some solutions

Our education system need not continue being a random hit-and-miss process for parents. There are some simple beginning steps that would help them and facilitate the effectiveness of teachers.

• Schools and states should adopt a comprehensive performance evaluation system that fairly, accurately and credibly differentiates teachers (and administrators) based on their effectiveness and that promotes an environment in which teaching (and administrative) achievement is actively supported through mentoring and professional development, compensation, retention and dismissal.

• The best teachers should mentor new faculty and receive compensation for doing so, and schools should provide an ongoing assessment process that promotes excellence in teaching and student achievement.

• More subject matter training matters, and it should be encouraged, because the evidence suggests that subject matter expertise enhances teacher effectiveness.

If we can take these small steps and build on them, then, in our view, we can remove the anxiety every parent experiences at this time of year, and we can ensure the academic success of their children. Teacher performance should not continue to be a game of chance.

David R. Colburn is a historian and director of the Askew Institute at the University of Florida. Brian Dassler, Broward County's teacher of the year in 2007, will be the founding principal of a KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) high school in New Orleans next year. Read the National Council for Teacher Quality's report "Increasing the Odds" at and "The Widget Effect" Report for the New Teacher Workshop at

Guessing at the best teachers 08/22/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 22, 2009 4:31am]
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