Education Opinion

Beating The Odds

October 01, 1999 3 min read

Research has documented what common sense tells us: Apart from family and socioeconomic influences, the quality of teaching is the single most important factor in student achievement. According to one study, dollars spent on better teaching do more to improve student performance than any other school expenditure. Another study suggests that teachers’ qualifications account for almost all the difference between low- and high-achieving students in reading and math.

Recent research by William Sanders makes the connection most dramatically. Sanders, a University of Tennessee statistician, has developed the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System. TVAAS can show the effect of every teacher on each student. Sanders has found that students assigned to a good teacher perform significantly better than those taught by a bad teacher. And children assigned to two or more bad teachers in a row tend to fall substantially behind and never catch up. Given these findings, Sanders argues that the random process by which kids are assigned teachers amounts to “life’s ultimate lottery.”

Heeding the work by Sanders and others, policymakers and education leaders have launched a host of new policies that aim to put a good teacher in every classroom. They promise to recruit the best and the brightest, overhaul education schools, toughen licensing and certification, and strengthen professional development. Such initiatives are critically important. But even their success won’t ensure that every classroom has a good teacher. That will only happen when we restructure schools to make them a place where teachers learn and grow on the job.

It is a statistical inevitability that a relatively small number of our 3 million teachers are superstars. Similarly, relatively few are totally incompetent. The rest fall somewhere in between.

Effective organizations are structured to minimize the damage caused by incompetents and to maximize the positive contributions of others. Staff members work collaboratively, often in teams where they can pool talents and knowledge. Supervisors monitor the work and offer assistance. Performance is assessed regularly using objective measures, and workers who ultimately cannot make the grade are dismissed.

Schools, by contrast, isolate teachers. Because they have little opportunity to collaborate and work in teams where they could observe and evaluate colleagues’ work, they have no chance to learn from each other. Indeed, almost nothing in the traditional structure of schools enhances teachers’ growth. Supervision is rare at best; few schools have a regular and sophisticated system of performance review. Even if they do, firing incompetent teachers is exceedingly difficult, time- consuming, and costly.

How will we ever achieve the goal of placing good teachers in every classroom if we cling to outdated models of schools? The present structure hides and shelters incompetence, undermines good teaching, and discourages teachers’ professional growth. Not only is it detrimental to students, it is unfair to good teachers and to the many who are minimally competent and capable of getting better.

Joel Giffin, principal of Maryville Middle School in Maryville, Tennessee, has used Sanders’ TVAAS system to change his school’s structure. He knows that students must be taught according to their varying levels of ability, so he has instituted a system of tracking students into courses based on their performance. Unlike traditional tracking, Giffin’s system does not lock kids in at one level; rather, students are pushed to do their best and move quickly into the next track when they do well. Such a system offers Giffin a clear, objective indication of a teacher’s performance; if there’s a logjam of students at a particular level, it’s a sure sign that the teacher in that track is struggling.

The result of Giffin’s ambitious changes: Maryville has posted impressive gains in achievement-gains that have attracted national attention. “If you’ve got the philosophy and willingness to change the school,” Giffin says, “you can directly affect the learning of individual students. It’s that simple.”

Indeed. The hard part is getting educators and policymakers to understand that.

--Ronald A. Wolk

A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 1999 edition of Teacher as Beating The Odds