Teacher Quality

This version was published in 2004. An updated version is available from 2011.

Research shows that good teaching matters.

Effective teachers are capable of inspiring significantly greater learning gains in their students when compared with their weaker colleagues. Value-added assessment studies in Tennessee show that the difference in achievement between students who attended classes taught by high-quality versus those taught by low-quality teachers for three consecutive years is sizeable: approximately 50 percentile points on standardized tests (Sanders & Rivers, 1996). Such studies determine students' average annual rates of improvement, as measured by test scores. They estimate how much value a teacher has contributed to student achievement, factoring in the gains the student was expected to make based on past performance (The Teaching Commission, 2004; Crane, 2002). In Texas, economists have amassed a body of work that further emphasizes the measurable influence that teachers have on student performance (Hanushek, Kain & Rivkin, 1998).

Even so, the specific characteristics that constitute an effective teacher are hotly debated. Teacher quality is extremely difficult to measure. As a result, most studies resort to measurable teacher inputs such as certification, academic degrees, and years of experience. Some studies that have correlated teacher test scores on basic skills tests and college entrance exams with the scores of their students on standardized tests have found that high-scoring teachers are more likely to elicit significant gains in student achievement than their lower-scoring counterparts (Ferguson, 1998; Ferguson & Ladd, 1996; Strauss & Sawyer, 1986).

The specific characteristics that constitute an effective teacher are hotly debated. Teacher quality is extremely difficult to measure.

Deep content-area knowledge is also an attribute of teachers that seems to have a positive impact on student achievement (Monk, 1994). This appears especially true for science and mathematics teachers. A review of research by the Education Commission of the States found moderate support for the importance that teachers be well-versed in their subjects. The review points out, however, that the research is not detailed enough to clarify how much subject matter is critical for teaching specific course levels and grades. The same review found less support for the importance of pedagogical coursework or field experiences for teachers, although courses focused on how best to teach a particular subject may contribute to effective teaching (Allen, 2003).

Teaching experience also appears to have an influence on student achievement. Teachers with less teaching experience typically produce smaller learning gains in their students compared with more seasoned teachers (Fetler, 1999; Murnane & Phillips, 1981). However, most of those studies have also discovered that the benefits of experience level off after the first five or so years of teaching.

There is a lot less consensus about certification. Some reports claim that certified teachers are no better in practice than uncertified instructors (Abell Foundation, 2001) while others assert that certification is an important step in ensuring quality teaching (Darling-Hammond, 2002). A review of research found that certification in a particular subject area, in this case, mathematics, may result in more effective teaching (Wayne & Youngs, 2003). One recent and controversial study found that students of certified instructors out-performed students of uncertified teachers (Laczko-Kerr & Berliner, 2002); however, reviews have called into question the methodology and results of the study (Freedman, 2002; Imai, 2002).

Regardless of the mixed research findings, teacher quality is a priority area in education policy. The federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 requires that by the end of the 2005-06 school year, every teacher working in a public school must be “highly qualified”—meaning that a teacher is certified and has demonstrated proficiency in his or her subject matter, by having majored in the subject in college, passing a subject-knowledge test, or obtaining advanced certification in the subject. Veteran teachers have the additional option of proving their subject-matter expertise though a state-determined high, objective, and uniform standard of evaluation.

A report by the Council of Chief State School Officers estimated, using data from the 1999-2000 Schools and Staffing Survey, that only about two-thirds of secondary teachers in science and math would have been considered “highly qualified” (Blank, 2003). Education Week’s annual report on state education policies, Quality Counts 2004, found that 34 states and the District of Columbia currently require high school teachers to pass a subject-knowledge test in order to receive beginning-teacher licenses. Twenty-eight states require all of their high school teachers to have majored in college in the subject they teach.

To meet the challenge of placing a highly qualified teacher in every classroom, some states are strengthening their traditional teacher-preparation programs and developing systems to hold those programs accountable. Such programs often come under fire for curricula marked by a lack of rigor and research-based instruction (Steiner, 2003).

The federal government currently requires states to report the pass rates on teacher licensing exams for all of their teacher education institutions. However, the pass rates vary in meaningfulness because the standards for determining pass rates differ from state to state. Quality Counts 2004 shows that 12 states have taken their accountability systems a step further by holding their teacher-training programs accountable for the performance of their graduates in a classroom setting. The report also found that, while 39 states and the District of Columbia identify low-performing teacher-training programs, 26 had not yet designated a single program as low-performing for the 2002-03 school year.

Many schools have also introduced induction and mentoring programs to address high attrition rates and improve the practice of their inexperienced teachers. Fifteen states require and finance mentoring programs for all new teachers (Quality Counts, 2004). Other states and districts are attempting to raise teacher salaries and improve working conditions in an effort to curb early departures.

Some experts and researchers argue that, while efforts to improve teacher quality as a whole are necessary, significant attention should be focused on the disparities between high- and low-need schools. Quality Counts 2003: "If I Can't Learn From You...", which looked at state efforts to recruit and retain teachers, found that while students in high-poverty and high-minority schools are receiving instruction from less-qualified teachers on a variety of measures, states and districts are doing little in the way of targeting recruitment and retention efforts to find effective teachers for the students who need them the most.

Education Week, Quality Counts 2004: Count Me In Jan. 8, 2004.
Ferguson, R.F., “Teachers’ Perceptions and Expectations and the Black-White Test Score Gap,” In Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips (Eds.), The Black-White Test Score Gap and Can Schools Narrow the Black-White Test Score Gap? pp. 273-374, Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 1998.
Ferguson, R.F. and Ladd, H.F., “How and Why Money Matters: An Analysis of Alabama Schools,” In Helen F. Ladd (Ed.), Holding Schools Accountable: Performance Based Reform in Education, Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 1996.
Freedman, P., “Memo to Wendy Kopp, President, Teach For America, re: Laczcko, Kerr Berliner study,” 2002.
Hanushek, E.A., Kain, J.F., and Rivkin, S.G., “Teachers, Schools, and Academic Achievement,” (NBER Working Paper No. w6691), National Bureau of Economic Research, 1998, August.
Imai, K., “Comments on Laczko-Kerr, I. and Berliner, D. C. The Effectiveness of Teach for America and Other Under-certified Teachers on Student Academic Achievement: A Case of Harmful Public Policy,” Harvard University, Department of Government, 2002.
Monk, D.H., “Subject Matter Preparation of Secondary Mathematics and Science Teachers and Student Achievement,” Economics of Education Review, 13 (2), pp.125-145, 1994.
Murnane, R.J. and Phillips, B.R., “Learning By Doing, Vintage, and Selection: Three Pieces of the Puzzle Relating Teaching Experience and Teaching Performance,” Economics of Education Review, 1 (4), pp. 453-465, 1981.
No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, (the complete text).
Sanders, W.L. and Rivers, J.C., “Cumulative and Residual Effects of Teachers on Future Student Academic Achievement,” Knoxville, University of Tennessee Value-Added Research and Assessment Center, 1996.
Steiner, D., “Preparing Teachers: Are American Schools of Education Up to the Task?,” Paper presented at the conference, “A Qualified Teacher in Every Classroom: Appraising Old Answers and New Ideas,” hosted by the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research and the Progressive Policy Institute, 2003, October.
Strauss, R.P. and Sawyer, E.A., “Some New Evidence on Teacher and Student Competencies,” Economics of Education Review, 5 (1), pp. 41-48, 1986.
Wayne, A.J. and Youngs, P., “Teacher Characteristics and Student Achievement Gains: A Review,” Review of Educational Research, 73 (1), pp. 89-122, 2003.