Professional Development

Pairing Teachers Together Strategically Can Boost Student Performance, Study Says

By Stephen Sawchuk — February 23, 2016 2 min read
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What’s one potential way to help a struggling teacher get better? Pairing her up with a teacher who’s strong in that skill area, and giving the two of them room to work together, concludes a recent experimental study.

I’m sure that any teacher reading this blog item right now is rolling her eyes and thinking, “no duh.” After all, teachers have long clamored for more time to work together, learn from peers, and watch and critique instruction. And some earlier research also indicates that teachers’ performance is influenced by their peers.

But with this study, there’s some pretty strong evidence that carefully designed efforts to this end could do a lot to help boost teacher quality—and cost less than formal PD courses and graduate credits.

“The one-on-one personalized approach to on-the-job training we study in this paper is apparently much more successful and much less costly” than many other forms of PD, the researchers write.

The study was released as a working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research. The research team includes John Papay, John Tyler, and Mary Laski of Brown University, and Eric Taylor of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

The experiment consisted of seven treatment schools and seven control schools in the Jackson-Madison County school district in Tennessee during the 2013-14 and 2014-15 school years. Using prior teacher-evaluation results, which are graded on a 1-to-5 scale, principals in the treatment matched up teachers who scored below a three on at least one of the evaluation’s 19 skill areas with a teacher who had scored a four or higher on one of the skills.

After a year, researchers examined test scores from students taught by the treatment and control group teachers. More than 300 teachers in all participated, although a smaller number were in grades and subjects that were tested and were included in the analysis.

Learning from teacher colleagues

In short, the study finds that the pairing of teachers in this manner bore fruit for student learning: Students taught by the teachers targeted for learning with a more-skilled peer learning scored higher than the average student taught by such a teacher in a control school, by about 0.12 of a standard deviation, on tests administered at the end of the 2014 school year. The effects persisted the following year, too.

Explaining the effects poses some challenge, because the principals and researchers pretty much left the teachers alone to decide how to work together.

But one thing seemed to matter: The improvements were strongest when a teacher weak in one area was matched with a colleague who was strong in that same area. In other words, the specific skill-matching made a difference, and the results weren’t as strong when the paired teachers’ skills areas of strength and weakness didn’t line up.

There’s one other thing to note, which is that this system was tied to a formal teacher-evaluation system. The researchers postulate that teachers might have responded to the system (and its incentives and pressures) differently as a result—perhaps one reason why it was successful, when other, informal mentoring and professional-development efforts haven’t had an effect.

Financial support for the research came from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (The Gates Foundation also supports coverage of college- and career-ready standards in Education Week.)

Image by Thomas Galvez/licensed through Flickr Creative Commons

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