Teacher Quality Matters

Parents fret about getting their kids into the best schools they can but, once enrolled, they assume that every teacher in their child’s school is good to great simply because of the school’s reputation. This works in reverse as well; parents agonize when their children wind up in schools with mediocre or poor reputations because they assume that the teachers will be inadequate too.

Here’s a scary fact. Where you send your child to school doesn’t matter as much as who your child’s teacher is. Even in the supposedly good school in the mythically good neighborhoods, teacher quality from classroom to classroom varies. Sometimes a lot. And that affects children more than anything else.

A recent article in The Atlantic by Amanda Ripley explores the very real issue that affects all children regardless of their backgrounds and raises, again, the question – What makes a good teacher and how can we teach all teachers to be that good?

The Obama Administration is proposing changes to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) that would revamp the gauging of student progress to a system that would focus on workplace/university readiness. It would also include funding for competitive grants that encourage states to build systems for recruiting, training, retaining and awarding effective teachers and administrators.

While the administration’s proposals might sound common sense, it should be remembered that there is no universally accepted method for evaluating students or their teachers that takes into account the complexity of both tasks.

The template for a model is emerging, however, thanks to Teach for America. (see this post by Fiona O’Sullivan) Their screening process and subsequent evaluations of successful Teach for America classroom teachers has provided valuable insight into what separates the good from the great from the superstar educators. From this program, a model for evaluation of teacher performance is emerging that may prove to be the foundation of future teacher training programs.

So what qualities does a good teacher possess? In the classroom this teacher, the one who pulls out the best in nearly every child who crosses his/her path, exhibits the following

  • Always searching for ways to improve their effectiveness
  • Constantly reevaluating what they are doing in the classroom
  • Reach out to students’ families in an effort to involve them
  • Focus on outcomes. Everything in the classroom is geared toward student achievement
  • They plan constantly – the next day or week or year
  • Refuse to be defeated by obstacles like bureaucracy, poverty or budget shortfalls – in other words: no excuses
  • They check students for understanding continually and in multiple ways

But evaluating teachers is easy when compared to finding those who might become good teachers because, though it is apparent who can and cannot teach after the first year or two, it is incredibly difficult to dismiss teachers once they are hired in most school districts. Teach for America created and discarded many a theory on the “right stuff”, discovering among other things that it is impossible to screen people for “relentless mindsets” and that people who reflect, evaluate and redirect themselves don’t make better teachers than those who don’t.

What does the future successful teacher look like?

According to a study published in The Journal of Positive Psychology in November 2009, those professionals destined for success as teachers possess high levels of perseverance and passion for long-term goals. This is apparently measurable through GPA. Students who had mediocre grades beginning college but finished strong in their last two years in terms of GPA and other academic achievements were more likely to make good teachers than those students who scored straight A’s all along. The theory is that people who are inclined to work harder to achieve long terms goals have the “grit” required to ensure success in their own students. Interestingly, this “grit” measure is the one applied by West Point in predicting the success of cadets.

It remains to be seen if the states who win Race to the Top grants in the first round will employ any of the information gleaned through the Teach for America program when designing teacher evaluation models, or if education colleges will choose to employ more stringent screening methods of their applicants based on success predictors. It would seem that some of what has been learned could be easily applied sooner rather than later but that isn’t how things tend to work in bureaucratic systems. It certainly doesn’t remind me of my days as a teacher when new and improved meant “trendy” and programs came and went with superintendents.

Think about the best teachers you know. Did they possess any of the success predictors? Can you think of other factors that make a teacher great? Share your thoughts and examples of good teachers and excellent schools with us.

Ann Bibby


Vallee Rose
Vallee R7 years ago

I believe I was a good teacher. But Jamie is right - we don't last long. I kept trying to transition my Spanish-speaking kids into English. But the school got more $ for each kid who DIDN'T speak English. My prinicipal said, "I can make your life miserable". Well I went to South America and was promised a job when I returned. Instead, with NO documentation saying I wasn't a good teacher and good reviews from a former vice-principal who was now a principal and another former principal, I was banned from teaching for 7 years. No one would stand up to her even though she had been endicted for embezzelment. I ended up moving to another state and becoming a counselor for alcohol/drug problems with teens. The system is corrupt.

Riaz H.
Riaz Haque7 years ago

Teacher quality can be traced back to the kind of fragmented education our universities and colleges are imparting to their students. An average science course during the sixties consisted of anywhere from 40 t0 60 hands-0n labs where students did everything by themselves and thus learned a lot of lab skills and analytical thinking. The same course now consists of 6-8 demonstration labs with little to no hands-on component. This is not an undergraduate but a graduate level course. Imagine if such a person now becomes a sciecne teacher, what kind of science he or she will be teaching? Hardly any. We need to revive hands-on science and teach it to our prospective teachers if we are to truly improve sciecne education and bring and retain students into science. Most people shun away from this kind of teaching because they feel there are just too many skills to learn. Not so. If we sift, sort and integrate science removing redundencies in the process, science gets reduced to mere 150 simple concepts and skills. Teach these and you will not only have good science teachers but also studnets hooked onto science much like they are hooked onto music, art and sports. To restore science skills, I have established a Science Skills Center see story: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/
news.aspx?id=149281. For more information send e-mail to: info@scienceskillscenter.org
Let us talk, discuss, share and network. Haque

Nellie K A.
Nellie K Adaba7 years ago

In America you go to school where you live whether it's the best or worse school. In Europe you go to the best school and it doesn't matter if it is not close to where you live.

Jamie L.
Jamie Lebo7 years ago

Unless you've spent time in a real classroom in this day and age, confronted with the countless challenges that teachers face every second of their day (and the day is not 9-5, believe me, many are lucky to ONLY put in 60-70 hours a week, and 'summers off' is a misconception since teachers use that time to take classes, review/revise curriculum, work part-time jobs to enable them to afford to keep teaching, etc.) you will never comprehend why 50% of teachers leave their chosen profession within 5 years...no one chooses teaching for the money, or the glamour and prestige, or the easy work schedule: those things don't exist in the real world of today's educators. They choose it because they want to have a positive impact, to make a difference in the world and in the lives of their students.

charmaine c.
Charmaine C7 years ago

I went through school being taught 'dry as old bones' lessons by uninterested and uninteresting teachers. There were a few notable exceptions. A better understanding of the basic concepts of math, science and the other subjects, I learned as an adult in an effort to get a more complete education. It was considerably more difficult to learn later in life then it would have been when my brain was fresh and young. Had my many teachers been more concerned to give me a life long interest and love of, say math for instance, they would have ensured that I would not have ended up hobbled by a dislike of the subject, but that I would have continued to joyfully learn everything I could. On the whole my teachers seemed to be preoccupied with pass rates, obtained by whatever manner, including bully tactics, than by the desire to give me as good an education as was possible in the allotted time frame that makes up our school years. I wonder if anything has changed in today's classrooms?

John Dixon
John Dixon7 years ago

schools and teacher are not like they use to be, I don't know how some of these kids make it out in the world

Paritosh P.
Paritosh P7 years ago

there should be effective.. inspections/audits

Paritosh P.
Paritosh P7 years ago

Quality does matter

Paritosh P.
Paritosh P7 years ago

i still remember those.. GOOD teachers

Mervi R.
Mervi R7 years ago

Absolutely, I totally agree!