School & District Management

50 Years of Research Show Good Teaching Matters. Now What?

By Stephen Sawchuk — February 03, 2016 2 min read
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The famous 1966 Coleman Report set up a longstanding (and still unsettled) debate about how much schools can do in the face of poverty and socioeconomic stratification. But one of its findings still resonates, a well-known scholar argues in an article released today: Teachers matter.

Buried within the venerable, 700-page report is the finding that teacher quality seems to bear more of a relationship to student progress than school facilities or curriculum—especially for underserved children, notes the University of Washington’s Daniel Goldhaber, in an upcoming edition of Education Next. (Education Next is a journal run by the conservative-leaning Hoover Institution at Stanford University.)

Sound familiar? It should. The last decade or so has seen dozens of studies, mostly based on sophisticated statistical analyses of growth in student scores, that have reached the same basic conclusion: Of the in-school factors affecting achievement, differences in teacher quality explain a lot of why some students do better than others.

Take a look at this list of studies outlined in Goldhaber’s article, for example: All show that as teachers’ effectiveness improved, so did student learning, for a median growth of about .14 of a standard deviation in math and .12 in reading.

There are some differences between then and now, of course. Coleman found teachers’ verbal ability to be the most predictive factor, followed by educational background. Today, we know that teacher experience and some measures of academic aptitude seem to matter, while things like master’s degrees have a less-consistent relationship to good teaching.

Goldhaber also takes time exploring the research on teacher quality post-Coleman. He notes that we now know that much of the variation in teacher quality is actually within schools, rather than between them, which was Coleman’s focus.

There are also some things we still don’t fully know, such as how teachers affect other student variables of interest, such as self esteem, resilience, attendance, and so on. But all in all, there’s research going back to the Lyndon B. Johnson era showing that teacher quality is really important.

Waiting for the inevitable caveat to this walk down memory lane? Here it is: 50 years later, despite the research affirming the importance of teachers, there is not a lot of consensus about what policies will help to improve the average teacher’s overall ability. You’ll certainly know this if you’ve been reading our coverage of today’s contested debates about teacher preparation, teacher evaluation, and teacher pay, among other things.

Graphic source: Education Next

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.