Opinion Blog

Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

A Good Teacher Is Hard to Find

By Daniel Lautzenheiser — July 09, 2012 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Note: Daniel Lautzenheiser, program manager in education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, is guest posting this week.

Thanks to Rick for letting me fill in for him for a second go-round. Last time, I talked about a few of the lessons I’ve learned in a couple years studying education policy here at AEI. This week, we’ll look at what I see as three of the most pressing K-12 issues: what we know about teacher quality, what happens when accountability works, and the business side of school reform. How’s that for an easy week? By the end, no doubt, we’ll have all questions ironed out and ready to take on the challenges facing higher ed.

Issue 1: A good teacher is hard to find. Effective teaching is arguably the central issue in today’s K-12 school reform conversations. The Gates Foundation sums up the issue rather succinctly: “Evidence shows clearly what most people know intuitively: teachers matter more to student learning than anything else inside a school.” Popular journalists like Malcolm Gladwell have weighed in, and research has suggested that simply removing the bottom 5 to 10 percent of teachers and replacing them with even just average teachers would improve student performance dramatically.

The problem is, despite countless efforts on the part of researchers, foundations, and individual schools, we have yet to find the secret recipe for what makes a good teacher. The common formula is some combination of years of experience, innate aptitude, and degrees earned, and yet, as economist Dan Goldhaber and colleagues have found, “Only about 3 percent of the contribution teachers made to student learning was associated with teacher experience, degree attained, and other readily observable characteristics. The other 97 percent of their contribution was associated with quality or behaviors that could not be isolated and identified.”

These findings--both on the importance of good teachers and on how difficult it is to find them--have been oft-discussed and as such aren’t particularly novel. And yet what is shocking is the continued insistence by some in the field to determine a narrow “what works” for determining teacher quality and cross-apply it broadly to every school or district, regardless of context and without sensitivity to the demands of a rapidly changing profession.

Last summer, Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, declared that, “It’s time to stop talking about the importance of teacher quality. It’s time to start building a high-quality education system by cultivating high-quality educators--from excellent teacher colleges, with ample clinical experience, focused induction, and ongoing professional support...” despite the fact that degrees from “excellent teacher colleges” are largely irrelevant to student achievement. Similar attacks have come on an array of alternative teacher recruitment and certification programs, such as a New York’s Relay Graduate School of Education and Teach For America. All this not to mention the flack the National Council on Teacher Quality recently came under for having the audacity to suggest that schools of education didn’t always offer the best preparation for future teachers.

Given how difficult it is to find the recipe for what makes a good teacher on the front end, this blind rejection of alternative methods of recruitment and certification and continued insistence on the status quo seems foolish. In a nation that employs over 3 million public school teachers, who operate in widely different contexts and in an age of numerous innovations in how schooling is delivered (such as charters and virtual schools), it makes sense to be as flexible as possible in getting teachers into the door.

This is in part because the ideal teacher is in many ways dependent on a school’s context. Indeed, even among teacher recruitment programs or charter schools that operate in similar environments, there are slight differences in opinion on what each group is looking for. Teach For America, which has been placing top college graduates in urban and rural districts for over 20 years, includes among its criteria fidelity to its vision and a commitment to diversity. YES Prep, a high-performing Houston-based charter school, has a slightly different metric. YES has spent the past few years immersed in behavioral psychology trying to figure out which personality characteristics their top performing teachers had in common. Jennifer Hines, a senior vice president at YES, told me, “We expected to hear that our teachers were about social justice, saving the world, ‘committed to the cause,’ and so forth.” Instead, YES found that one of the most important factors in their high-performing teachers was a trait they’ve termed “pessimism,” meaning the teacher internalizes failure, takes responsibility for it, and strives to improve, as opposed to a blind optimism that assumes things will work out.

There are overlapping qualities, to be sure, between TFA and YES Prep’s recruitment policies. But the point is, two smart organizations who are trying to place similar teachers in similar kinds of schools and who actively think about “what makes a good teacher” have devised slightly different criteria for what exactly that is. And their needs will likely be different from a school in an affluent suburban district.

And this is okay. The trick isn’t obsession over what qualifies a teacher to join the profession. Our policies should instead be loose on entrance and tight on results--encouraging maximum flexibility for states, districts, and charter schools to recruit teachers as they see fit while seeking to find better ways to identify good and bad teachers, reward the good ones and keep them in the classroom, and move out the bad ones.

What this means will vary by district-to-district, school-to-school, but a few quick thoughts:
-we should continue to invest in designing smart and robust teacher evaluation tools, which include value-added measurements of student performance--where appropriate and as a piece of the puzzle.
-teacher compensation should not be linked solely to degrees earned or years of experience but to quality of work, including student achievement.
-we should allow more teachers to enter via alternative certification programs, and give charter schools increased flexibility to hire the kinds of teachers befitting their unique missions.
-schools and districts should consider a classroom career ladder that permits good teachers to remain in the classroom while affording them opportunities to grow professionally.

In the same way there’s not a single “what works” for identifying good teachers before they enter the profession, there’s similarly not a one-size-fits-all on the evaluation end. But the broad principal--loose on entrance, tight on results--will permit us to rethink how we go about recruiting, training, and evaluating teachers in the 21st century.

--Daniel Lautzenheiser

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.