Teacher quality: What kind? What works?

Teacher quality matters.

Research shows an effective teacher has a bigger impact on student performance than any other in-school variable, as the Bush Foundation reports.

The trouble is defining teacher quality and knowing what improves it. 

The teacher quality challenge is driving public policy debates about incentive pay for teachers, changes in teacher licensure, and new approaches to teacher training, hiring and retention. In Minnesota, legislators are considering moves to allow for teachers with less training or unconventional backgrounds. And some community leaders have tangled with the Education Minnesota teachers' union over teacher quality ideas.

When compiling research and recommendations for the Growth & Justice proposal on Smart Investments in Minnesota's Students in 2008, we wrestled with the teacher quality question as we looked for proven, cost-effective efforts to improve education. 

In their paper for Growth & Justice on what works for K-12 education in Minnesota, noted scholars Henry Levin and Clive Belfield flag teacher quality as critical - "High quality teaching raises student performance and its effect accumulates over the K-12 years" - but they point out, too, that the evidence on how to improve teacher quality is inadequate, at present, to drive policy changes. 

One complication: There are a variety of qualities wrapped up in teaching, including:

  • Teaching techniques - the mechanics of teaching, the ability to capture the attention of students and control the classroom.
  • Subject matter knowledge - an understanding or mastery of the content of what's being taught.
  • Motivation - how to promote and sustain high-quality performance so as to boost student knowledge and achievement. 

Each of these pops up in the ongoing public discussions about teacher quality. Each is important. But to date, we have very little solid evidence about what systems and approaches improve quality in ways that lead to better educational outcomes. And even less evidence exists, at present, for what's cost-effective.

In an interesting article in the New York Times Magazine about Building a Better Teacher, writer Elizabeth Green notes that the evidence for improving teaching is thin when it comes to three common approaches - merit pay, recruiting top talent for teaching, and teacher training. The right approaches either haven't been studied carefully enough or haven't been uncovered yet.

For this reason, our report on Smart Investments in Minnesota's Students focused on three effective, overarching strategies for improving education and boosting educational attainment:

  1. Quality academic preparation and the alignment of curriculum across grades;
  2. Social supports that foster relationships between students and their teachers, parents, care-givers, mentors, tutors and counselors; and
  3. Access to and financial support for childcare, preschool and post-secondary education so that these learning opportunities are available for Minnesotans of all income levels.

The Growth & Justice report does identify some teacher quality efforts as promising, although not yet proven.

Lots of attention is being paid now to teacher quality initiatives. Plenty of public debate, of course. But in addition, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has funded - to the tune of $335 million - a Measures of Effective Teaching project, run by a Harvard economist and designed to analyze and identify what makes teachers great. And here in our region, the Bush Foundation has embarked on a decade-long teacher effectiveness initiative to improve teacher quality and measure effectiveness.

The results of these efforts and others aimed at evidence-based, teacher quality improvements could - and should - change how we foster excellence in our schools and success for our students. No doubt we could certainly use that.

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