Opinion
School & District Management Opinion

Policies Should Reflect the Importance of Teaching

By Michelle Rhee — January 17, 2012 3 min read

I always knew our teachers were undervalued for the critical work they do, but nothing made that more apparent than the front page of The New York Times the other day. The paper reported on a groundbreaking study that found teachers have a far more lasting and wide-ranging effect on students than most people ever realized.

Economists at Harvard and Columbia universities looked at the lives of 2.5 million students over 20 years—an undertaking far broader and more detailed than seen in previous studies.

But it’s not just the scope of the study that makes it so remarkable. The study’s findings also are astounding. They show that students who had highly effective elementary and middle school teachers went on to have much better outcomes in life than students who had lower-performing teachers.

We’re not talking about small advantages. The kids with more effective teachers had lower teen-pregnancy rates and higher college-enrollment rates than their peers. They also had higher earnings, lived in better neighborhoods, and even saved more for retirement. I’m a parent, and I want my daughters to have those kinds of successes in life. Certainly I’m not alone.

The economists measured teacher effectiveness by looking at the degree to which a teacher’s students posted gains on achievement tests. In other words, teachers who helped kids make academic progress, as measured on these tests, also impacted kids’ lives in other incredibly rich, meaningful, and lasting ways.

There are critics who argue that a teacher’s ability to help kids make gains on tests doesn’t amount to much. They say that all it shows is that a teacher can teach to a test or show a child how to fill in a bubble. I’m not sure how anyone can still make those arguments in light of the new study’s critical findings.

The new study confirms that what matters most, and what teachers really ought to be rewarded for, is the ability to help kids make academic progress."

Being economists, the authors laid out in financial terms the benefits of staffing our schools with effective teachers. They found that substituting even just an average teacher for an ineffective one would raise a single classroom’s lifetime earnings by about $266,000. That’s just in a single year. Imagine the benefits when that happens regularly over time.

So, given the potential impact our teachers have on our kids and society, isn’t it time to rethink how we assign, retain, evaluate, and pay educators? Shouldn’t we take a hard look at teacher-layoff and teacher-tenure policies?

Let’s consider pay. The average teacher in America makes roughly $55,000 a year. That’s pretty paltry when you consider what’s at stake. What’s more, the way salaries increase over a teacher’s career is outdated. Teachers typically receive salary bumps for time on the job or for earning advanced degrees that aren’t actually linked to student achievement. The new study confirms that what matters most, and what teachers really ought to be rewarded for, is the ability to help kids make academic progress. Given the link between effective educators and their students’ later earnings, shouldn’t we be putting more money into our best teachers’ paychecks now?

See Also

Are Teachers Overpaid?
To read more about recent studies on teacher impact and teacher pay, and what our readers have to say about both issues, visit our Storify page.

But teacher pay is only part of the story. What about our efforts, or lack thereof, to keep our best teachers on the job so they can serve as many kids as possible? In most districts, when teacher layoffs arise during difficult economic times like the ones we’re currently facing, the last teacher hired is generally the first one let go. This often happens without any regard whatsoever to a teacher’s job performance. As a result, some of our most effective teachers are shown the door. Such policies are unconscionable in light of the economists’ study.

Similarly, when it comes to evaluations, most teachers are reviewed infrequently and without even a glance at student-achievement data. To keep that up, in light of what we now know, is ridiculous. The academic progress of our kids shouldn’t be the only basis for reviewing our teachers, but it has to start playing a significant role in evaluations.

In fact, whether our kids are actually learning, and to what degree, should be the central focus of all the decisionmaking in our schools. Too often, our education policies are now dictated by adult interests rather than student needs. That has to change.

We all know the concerns parents face each year as they await news about who will be teaching their children come September. No doubt, this study will add to those concerns and fuel efforts by parents to ensure their kids are assigned great teachers. But, really, should anyone have to worry about that? Shouldn’t all kids benefit from being in classrooms with highly effective educators? I think so, and I think most moms and dads would agree with me.

A version of this article appeared in the January 25, 2012 edition of Education Week as Policies Should Reflect the Importance of Teaching

Events

Jobs The EdWeek Top School Jobs Virtual Career Fair
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
Teaching Live Online Discussion How to Develop Powerful Project-Based Learning
How do you prepare students to be engaged, active, and empowered young adults? Creating a classroom atmosphere that encourages students to pursue critical inquiry and the many skills it requires demands artful planning on the
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
A Safe Return to Schools is Possible with Testing
We are edging closer to a nationwide return to in-person learning in the fall. However, vaccinations alone will not get us through this. Young children not being able to vaccinate, the spread of new and
Content provided by BD

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management More Than 1 Million Students Didn't Enroll During the Pandemic. Will They Come Back?
Education Week analyzed state data to gather a more comprehensive understanding of this year's enrollment loss.
6 min read
Students participate in class outside at the Woodland Pond School, a private school  located near Bangor, Maine. Maine experienced one of the nation's largest drops in student enrollment this school year, according to an EdWeek analysis.
Students participate in class outside at the Woodland Pond School, a private school located near Bangor, Maine. Maine experienced one of the nation's largest drops in student enrollment this school year, according to an EdWeek analysis.
Photo courtesy of Woodland Pond School
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Sponsor
Drive Improvement in Your School With Harvard’s Certificate in School Management and Leadership
Aubree Mills had two dilemmas she needed to address: One was recruiting and retaining good teachers at the Ira A. Murphy Elementary School
Content provided by Harvard Graduate School of Education
School & District Management Opinion Are Your Leadership Practices Good Enough for Racial Justice?
Scratch being a hero. Instead, build trust and reach beyond school walls, write Jennifer Cheatham and John B. Diamond.
Jennifer Cheatham & John B. Diamond
5 min read
Illustration of leadership.
Collage by Laura Baker/Education Week (Images: DigitalVision Vectors, iStock, Getty)
School & District Management We Pay Superintendents Big Bucks and Expect Them to Succeed. But We Hardly Know Them
National data is skimpy, making it hard to know what influences superintendents' decisions to move on, retire, or how long they stay. Why?
8 min read
Conceptual image of tracking with data.
marcoventuriniautieri/iStock/Getty