On Teacher Quality

Rhonda Johnson, a Columbus City Schools educator and President of CEA has a great letter published on the Reimagine Columbus Education website, that we wanted to share

Our goal as a community must be to have a competent, caring and high-quality teacher in every classroom. Why? Teacher quality is the most important school-based factor in a high- quality education.

To that end, we must invest in high-quality teaching and organize schools for success for all of our students. This trumps other investments, such as reduced class size, overall spending on education, and teacher financial incentives and salaries.

There are clear conditions that must be present to attract and retain high-quality teachers, especially in challenging schools.

Pre-service preparation through appropriate and rigorous experiences at the university, in collaboration with faculty and public school teachers, is crucial. Teacher preparation programs, state departments of education and school districts must engage in residency programs analogous to the residency model in schools of medicine.

School leadership matters . . . a lot. Principal behavior is the primary factor affecting a teacher’s decision to stay at or leave a particular school. In fact, leadership behavior is a stronger predictor of teacher retention than either student demographics or achievement.

Teaching and learning conditions — such as job-imbedded professional development, teaching assistants and administrative support— matter more than individual financial incentives. In partnership with communities, school districts must provide sufficient resources to get the job done — newer technologies, instructional equipment and supplies, and access to social and health services.

Schools must provide the opportunity for teachers to work collaboratively with peers who share the responsibility for every student’s success. Teachers must work with colleagues to analyze student work, plan lessons and build relationships with students and families.

Effective teachers are committed to creative teaching and inquiry learning. Teaching is about discovery, learning and awe, not minute-by-minute curriculum mandates, scripted instruction and testing.

Education policymakers and administrators would be well served by recognizing the complexity of the issue of teacher quality and adopting multiple measures along many dimensions to support existing teachers and to attract new, highly qualified teachers.

Research suggests that investing in teachers can make a difference in student achievement. To implement needed policies associated with staffing every classroom — even the most challenging ones — with high-quality teachers, substantial and targeted investments must first be made in teaching quality.

Recruiting the best?


This goal – recruiting and retaining talented people into teaching – is shared by most everyone, but it is among the most central emphases of the diverse group that might be called market-based reformers. Their idea is to change compensation structures, performance evaluations and other systems in order to create the kind of environment that will be appealing to high-achieving, less risk-averse people, as well as to ensure that those who aren’t cut out for the job are compelled to leave. This will, so the argument goes, create a “dynamic profession” more in line with the high risk, high reward model common among the private sector firms competing for the same pool of young workers.

No matter your feelings on TFA, it’s more than fair to say that their corps members fit this profile perfectly. On paper, they aren’t just “top third,” but top third of the top third. TFA cohorts enter the labor market having been among the highest achievers in the best colleges and universities in the nation. Getting accepted to the program is very, very difficult. Those who make it are not only service-oriented, but also smart, hard-working and ambitious. They are exactly the kind of worker that employers crave, and market-based reformers have made it among their central purposes to attract to the profession.

Yet, at least by the standard of test-based productivity, TFA teachers really don’t do better, on average, than their peers, and when there are demonstrated differences, they are often relatively small and concentrated in math (the latter, by the way, might suggest the role of unobserved differences in content knowledge). Now, again, there is some variation in the findings, and the number and scope of these analyses are limited – we’re nowhere near some kind of research consensus on these comparisons of test-based productivity, to say nothing of other sorts of student outcomes.
But, to me, one of the big, underdiscussed lessons of TFA is less about the program itself than what the test-based empirical research on its corps members suggests about the larger issue of teacher recruitment. Namely, it indicates that “talent” as typically gauged in the private sector may not make much of a difference in the classroom, at least not by itself. This doesn’t necessarily mean that market-based policies won’t lure great teachers, but it does suggest that, if we’re going to enact massive changes in personnel policy to attract a certain “type” of person to teaching, we might reexamine our assumptions on who we’re trying to attract and what they want.