School & District Management

Twin Study Bolsters Arguments for Good Teachers

By Debra Viadero — April 22, 2010 3 min read

A new study focusing on pairs of identical and fraternal twins in Florida schools bolsters a growing body of evidence on the importance of good teachers.

For the study, which was published last week in the journal Science, researchers from Florida State University in Tallahassee drew on data for a racially and ethnically diverse group of more than 800 pairs of twins in 1st and 2nd grade classrooms across the state. Among identical twins with different teachers, the study found, those whose teachers were judged to be more effective in teaching reading tended to have higher scores on tests of oral literacy than siblings with less effective teachers.

Looking at both the fraternal and the identical twins, the researchers also found that there was more variation attributable to genetics among the twins in higher-achieving classrooms than was the case in classrooms with lower average achievement. According to the researchers, that suggests that teachers play a role in “moderating” students’ achievement—helping them, in other words, to grow to their full potential.

“I don’t want to give the impression that a high-quality teacher will get all children miraculously to a high level of reading,” said lead author Jeanette Taylor, an associate professor of psychology at FSU. “But a teacher provides a supportive environment for the individual differences that kids are already bringing to that environment.”

In education, a handful of studies in recent years have drawn on “value added” calculations of students’ learning gains to measure the impact of good or bad teachers. Critics have argued, though, that those studies don’t always adequately account for unmeasured differences in classes of students when the school year begins.

By studying twins growing up in the same homes, though, researchers are able to eliminate some other factors, such as genetics or parents’ wealth, that might explain differing rates of academic growth among students. Identical twins share 100 percent of their genes, according to the study, while fraternal twins share half.

Nature vs. Nurture

“That’s exactly how I think twins should be used,” said Eric Turkheimer, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, who has also used twin studies to evaluate the effect of educational interventions. “Not so much for the old business of computing what percentage of reading ability is ‘genetic,’ but as little mini-experiments giving us insight into the effects of environmental interventions like teaching, while controlling for everything that identical twins share.”

“It is a way of approximating in humans something that is ordinarily impossible: random assignment of students to teachers, which if it were possible would be a way to demonstrate the effects of teaching definitively,” he said.

By comparing the fraternal and identical twins, researchers were able to assess the extent to which students’ genetic tendencies were able to come to fruition with skilled teachers. A good analogy, Mr. Turkheimer said, would be to think of seeds bred for different genetic traits, such as height or size, that are growing in different soils. All of the plants grown from seeds growing in poor soil would be stunted, while the plants in richer soil might be both taller and more varied.

To measure teacher quality, the researchers tested twins’ classmates in both the fall and the spring on standardized oral-literacy tests, which measure the number of words students pronounce correctly in a set period of reading aloud. For the smaller group of the identical twins, the gains ranged from learning 11 more words per minute by the end of the year to as many as 124 words.

FSU’s Ms. Taylor said the teachers’ effect sizes did not appear to be as large, however, as some of those reported for the studies relying only on value-added analyses of students’ test scores, some of which have found that the academic edge for students with the most effective teachers can amount to as much as a year’s worth of learning.

Even so, said Adam Gamoran, a professor of sociology and educational policy studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the findings “strengthen the importance of the arguments for teacher effectiveness and suggest that value-added analyses might be on the right track.”

Conducted out of the university’s Florida Center for Reading Research, the study was funded by the National Institute on Child Health and Human Development, part of the National Institutes of Health.

A version of this article appeared in the April 28, 2010 edition of Education Week as Twin Study Bolsters Arguments for Good Teachers

Events

School & District Management Webinar What's Ahead for Hybrid Learning: Putting Best Practices in Motion
It’s safe to say hybrid learning—a mix of in-person and remote instruction that evolved quickly during the pandemic—is probably here to stay in K-12 education to some extent. That is the case even though increasing
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
Mathematics Webinar
Building Equitable Systems: Moving Math From Gatekeeper to Opportunity Gateway
The importance of disrupting traditional American math practices and adopting high-quality math curriculum continues to be essential for changing the trajectory of historically under-resourced schools. Building systems around high-quality math curriculum also is necessary to
Content provided by Partnership for L.A. Schools
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
Measuring & Supporting Student Well-Being: A Researcher and District Leader Roundtable
Students’ social-emotional well-being matters. The positive and negative emotions students feel are essential characteristics of their psychology, indicators of their well-being, and mediators of their success in school and life. Supportive relationships with peers, school
Content provided by Panorama Education

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 Opinion Pandemic Recovery Will Be Complex. We’ll Need the Best School Leaders
To face the education challenges of today and tomorrow, we must invest in the principal pipeline, writes Michael J. Petrilli.
Michael J. Petrilli
4 min read
Leader pointing hand forward, directing boat forward through corona virus crisis
iStock / Getty Images Plus
School & District Management Opinion The Year of Scourges: How I Survived Illness and Racism to Find My 'Tribe'
A Black school leader reflects on the hardest year of her professional life.
Reba Y. Hodge
4 min read
new growth on a bare tree
Vanessa Solis/Education Week & Getty Images
School & District Management From Our Research Center How the Pandemic Is Shaping K-12 Education (in Charts)
Surveys by the EdWeek Research Center show how schools have changed during the pandemic and what adjustments are likely to stick.
Eric DiVito gives breathing instructions as he teaches a remote music class at the Osborn School on Oct. 6, 2020, in Rye, N.Y.
Eric DiVito gives breathing instructions as he teaches a remote music class at the Osborn School in Rye, N.Y., last fall.
Mary Altaffer/AP
School & District Management Opinion Ed. Leaders: Discuss Race, Call Out White Supremacy
Downplaying the realities of racism leads to misunderstanding school problems and developing inadequate solutions.
John B. Diamond & Jennifer Cheatham
5 min read
Hand writing the word racism on blackboard. Stop hate. Against prejudice and violence. Lecture about discrimination in school.
Tero Vesalainen/iStock/Getty