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Teacher quality and student achievement: Q&A

How important is teacher quality to raising student achievement?

A growing body of research shows that student achievement is more heavily influenced by teacher quality than by students’ race, class, prior academic record, or school a student attends. This effect is particularly strong among students from low-income families and African American students.

The benefits associated with being taught by good teachers are cumulative. Research indicates that the achievement gap widens each year between students with most effective teachers and those with least effective teachers. This suggests that the most significant gains in student achievement will likely be realized when students receive instruction from good teachers over consecutive years.


How can attention to teacher quality close achievement gaps—the tendency for some groups of students to achieve less academically than others?

Poor and minority students are the least likely group to be taught by teachers with experience, knowledge, and credentials, the elements of teacher quality that research demonstrates are strongly associated with high student achievement. Research also shows that these students produce the most gains when assigned to effective teachers. Indeed, these findings have led many researchers and analysts to assert that the lack of good teachers is a major contributor to the achievement gap.

A California study suggests that schools hit a “tipping point” when approximately 20 percent of the school faculty is comprised of underqualified teachers—teachers who do not meet minimum state requirements. After this point, schools begin to lose their ability to improve student achievement. The best strategy for closing achievement gaps is to make sure that schools serving poor and minority students have their fair share of qualified teachers.


What is meant by “value-added”?

Value-added is a measure of change, or effect, brought about by a certain action. When the subject is teaching, the value-added is the amount of students’ academic growth produced by a teacher.

The most compelling evidence for the importance of teacher quality initially came from economists who adapted value-added models from business to measure the effect of teachers on student learning. While the statistical methods are complex, the definition of effective teaching is not. Simply, researchers looked for the change in students’ test scores according to the teacher they were assigned to. A highly effective teacher, therefore, is one whose students show the most gains from one year to the next.

By using a value-added approach, researchers are able to isolate the effect of the teacher from other factors related to student performance (e.g., students’ prior academic record, school they attend, or family circumstances).


What are the qualities of an “effective teacher”?

Research findings point to four key dimensions of teacher quality:

  • Content knowledge.
  • Teaching experience.
  • Professional certification.
  • Overall academic ability. 

It’s important to note that there are individual teachers who are highly effective although they lack one or more of these qualities, just as there are ineffective teachers who have all of them. But on average, the presence rather than absence of these qualities is more likely to produce effective teaching.


How important is teachers’ content knowledge?

Researchers agree that teachers’ content knowledge influences student performance. Many studies support the notion that teachers who teach subjects that they have previously studied in depth (by earning a major or minor in the field while in college or earning an advanced degree in the discipline) are particularly effective. However, advanced degrees in general—degrees that are not in the subject matter being taught—have not been found to be associated with higher student achievement.

Research is not yet clear about the magnitude of the effect of teachers’ content knowledge relative to other important teacher attributes.


How important are teachers’ years of teaching experience?

Researchers agree that teaching experience is positively correlated with higher student achievement even though findings about its meaning vary. For example, some studies find that years of teaching experience are a consistent predictor of higher test scores. Others document a negative effect when a high proportion of inexperienced teachers are present in a school in terms of higher dropout rates and lower student achievement scores.

Nevertheless, some research studies suggest that the effect of teacher experience is small relative to the effects of the other three desirable teacher characteristics: teachers’ content knowledge, credentials, and overall academic ability.

How important are teachers’ professional certification and training?

Many studies demonstrate that students with certified teachers perform better than students with teachers who have no certification or emergency certification. Similarly, studies show that teachers who have professional education training, or “pedagogy,” produce higher student achievement than those who enter the profession and lack this background.

One study finds that the effects of teacher certification are even greater than those of teacher experience. However, other researchers urge caution about making generalizations regarding the effect of certification because not all studies support these findings and certification requirements vary considerably by state.


How important is teachers’ academic ability?

Research indicates that teachers with greater academic ability tend to have students who perform better. The findings hold up regardless of which indicator researchers use to represent teachers’ academic skills: SAT or ACT scores, grade point average, or selectivity of college attended. However, because of the different measures, it is difficult to generalize about the magnitude of the effect on student performance.


What steps are being taken to ensure that there are qualified teachers in every classroom?

The federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) requires a highly qualified teacher in every classroom by the end of the 2005-2006 school year. To be highly qualified, teachers must meet state certification requirements. New teachers must major in the content area they will teach or pass a test on the content. Teachers who are currently in the classroom and who have not met the standards for highly qualified must meet the standards set by their state’s High Objective Uniform State Standard of Evaluation (HOUSSE) system, which awards points for experience, professional accomplishments, and completion of graduate courses and other kinds of professional development.

States must produce report cards on the percentage of highly qualified teachers at the state, district, and school levels. They must also show how teacher quality is distributed between high- and low-poverty schools.

NCLB also has “right to know” provisions for parents of students in Title I schools—schools with a high population of low-income students. These parents have the right to know the qualifications of their child’s teachers, including whether they have temporary or emergency licenses or are certified in the subject area they are teaching. Title I schools must also notify parents if their child is being taught for more than four weeks by a teacher who is not fully certified.


What can school districts do to support efforts to have a highly qualified teacher in every classroom?

Districts can step up their recruiting efforts to aggressively seek teacher candidates who have strong academic credentials and who have completed a rigorous teacher preparation program. District recruiters could, for example, closely examine transcripts and other records that identify and describe the actual courses that teacher candidates have taken in order to asses the rigor and extent of teacher preparation. They could also ask teacher candidates specific questions about their course requirements and assessments during interviews.

Data collection:
States and districts can explore value-added methods for monitoring teacher effectiveness, such as those used in Texas, North Carolina, and other states. They can use this data to inform decisions about where to assign teachers, how to staff schools, and what supports and professional development are needed to maximize the benefits of having good teachers. Teachers can use value-added data themselves to reflect on their own practices and to assess students’ individual needs.

Teacher preparation:
Information about effectiveness can help districts identify teacher education programs that produce better qualified teacher candidates. It can further prompt discussions between state universities and districts regarding ways to ensure that teacher preparation programs explicitly address state and local instructional needs, including helping to increase the supply of teachers in areas of shortage.

Professional development and supports:
Districts can establish and maintain intensive, long-term induction programs that focus on helping new teachers and teachers new to the district meet challenging professional performance standards. Districts can also plan and implement comprehensive, standards-based professional development programs for all teachers that provide continuous access to professional learning activities specifically tailored to teacher needs and district priorities.


What are the effects of alternate routes of teacher certification?

Although many states and districts offer alternative teaching certificates to college graduates who want to teach but lack education school credentials, the research community is divided on the effects of traditional versus alternate certification. One problem is that alternate routes to teaching can take many forms across different states and districts, making it difficult to generalize findings.

There is one high-profile alternate route initiative that has a national reach—Teach for America (TFA). TFA is a competitive program that places top college graduates in high-needs districts. Two recent studies of TFA teachers show mixed results: one finds that TFA teachers produce better student results than other alternate route teachers. Another study confirms those results but finds that TFA teachers did not perform as well as new teachers with pedagogical training and traditional certificates.

Alternate routes continue to be a popular response to teacher shortages. Therefore, more studies are needed to identify the best ways to make them effective.


What is the potential of professional development as a strategy to improve teacher quality?

There is growing consensus that effective professional development can improve teacher quality, but it is important to recognize that this consensus is not yet supported by rigorous research on what constitutes “effective.” While studies show individual cases where professional development programs lead to improved instructional practices, the research on professional development has not identified development programs that have widespread success.

Nonetheless, practitioners and researchers do agree on four characteristics of professional development that are most likely to have the greatest impact on practice.

  • Extends over long periods of time.
  • Engages teachers as active learners.
  • Focuses on combining content and pedagogy.
  • Includes opportunities for practice, feedback, and reflection rather than one-day workshops.

Currently, most teachers have no access to this kind of professional development on a regular basis, making it a ripe area for state and district teacher improvement plans.


What are some of the problems districts may encounter in their effort to recruit and retain the best teachers in the most challenging schools?

Although districts must recognize that efforts to assign and retain teachers in more challenging schools may be difficult, they must be willing—over the long term—to commit necessary resources to address this challenge in a comprehensive manner. Recruitment and retention for needy schools requires a three-prong strategy.

  • Recruitment of top teacher candidates.
  • Incentives and prestige to attract the best teachers where they’re most needed.
  • Ongoing professional development to improve the effectiveness of current faculty.

Districts must recognize that it is not enough to simply sprinkle a few good teachers in low-performing schools or leave them to work in isolation. All teachers work better with extensive support and strong leadership in their schools.

Community engagement is also crucial to initiating and sustaining efforts to raise teacher quality in the neediest schools. Likely challenges include the disapproval of politically influential parents who have children enrolled in more affluent, high-performing schools; teacher ire, resistance, and ultimately, resignations; and the reality that there may be too few teachers in the district who currently possess the desirable attributes to make a noticeable difference in the achievement gap.

While some initiatives that rely on incentives to recruit teachers for hard-to-staff schools have met with limited success, others have begun to have an impact. It is important to continue these experiments and complement them with a range of other programs and policy initiatives that include mechanisms to bolster the skills of current teaching staff.


What about teacher shortages?

espite the best efforts of districts, areas of teacher shortages may continue to be an obstacle to recruiting good teachers. Districts nationwide are already competing for a shrinking pool of mathematics, science, and special education teachers. The problem is particularly acute for urban and rural districts who have limited resources compared to their more affluent suburban counterparts.

There are, however, a few things districts can do. Some analysts note the large attrition rates of new teachers, so focusing on teacher retention could be a key strategy for maintaining a qualified faculty. Research points to the efficacy of strong induction programs for new teachers and supportive working conditions for all teachers in the school. While the jury is still out on the effectiveness of alternate teaching certificates, some programs (e.g., Teach for America) can be good resources for individuals with deep content knowledge and the desire to teach. By providing substantial professional support for alternate route teachers, districts can help increase their effectiveness in the classroom.

However, new and creative ideas are also called for. A few districts, such as Denver, Colo., are exploring pay-for-performance or merit pay plans to address areas of teacher shortages and to reward good teachers. These strategies bear watching as they evolve. Other strategies for consideration include distance learning, faculty sharing arrangements with local colleges and universities, and dual enrollments that offer high school students the opportunity to take college courses.


This document was prepared by Policy Studies Associates (PSA) for the Center for Public Education. PSA, based in Washington, D.C, is a research and evaluation consulting firm specializing in education and youth development. PSA’s clients include federal, state, and local government agencies, foundations, and other organizations.

Posted: January 13, 2006

© 2006 Center for Public Education

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