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Teacher quality and student achievement: At a glance

Teacher quality stands out in the research for its potential to close the gap in academic achievement between students from traditionally poor, non-white, and/or urban backgrounds and their better-off peers.  This summary highlights the most salient findings of the research on teacher quality. 

Good teachers have a substantial effect on student achievement, especially when assigned to work with disadvantaged students.

  • Teacher quality more heavily influenced differences in student performance than did race, class, or school of the student; disadvantaged students benefited more from good teachers than did advantaged students (Nye, Konstantopoulos, and Hedges 2004).
  • Achievement gains from having an effective teacher could be almost three times as large for African American students than for white students, even when comparing students with the same prior school achievement (Sanders and Rivers 1996).
  • The effects of teacher quality accumulate over the years.  Fifth-grade math students in Tennessee who had three consecutive highly effective teachers scored between 52 and 54 percentile points ahead of students who had three consecutive teachers who were least effective, even though both groups had the same achievement rates prior to entering second grade.  A similar study in Texas showed a difference of 34 percentile points in reading and 49 percentile points in math (Sanders and Rivers 1996; Jordan, Mendro, and Weerasinghe 1997).

Teachers with four characteristics, or dimensions, of teacher quality consistently generate higher student achievement:  content knowledge, experience, teacher training and certification, and general cognitive skills.

  • A background in the subject matter being taught makes a difference in how well students perform. The presence of a teacher who does not have at least a minor in the subject matter that he or she teaches accounts for around 20 percent of the variation in NAEP scores (Darling-Hammond 1999).
  • Graduate education in a subject area makes a difference.  An advanced degree specific to the subject area that a teacher teaches is associated with higher achievement (Goldhaber and Brewer 1996).
  • More years of teaching experience consistently translate into higher student test scores.  Conversely, the presence of new teachers in a school was one of the strongest predictors of higher dropout rates in a sample of California schools (Greenwald, Hedges, and Laine 1996; Fetler 2001).
  • Newly hired uncertified teachers may not perform as well as other teachers.  Students taught by new certified teachers scored better on a state math achievement test than did students taught by new teachers who were not certified (Darling-Hammond 1999; Laczko-Kerr and Berliner 2002).  Similarly, teachers with emergency teaching certificates did not perform as well as others (Fetler 1999).
  • Findings from evaluations of alternatively certified teachers are mixed.  The performance of alternatively certified teachers performed as well as, if not better than, their more traditionally prepared colleagues, but did not perform as well as new teachers who had pedagogical training and who were certified (Raymond, Fletcher, and Luque 2001; Darling-Hammond, Holzman, Gatlin, and Heilig 2005).
  • Teachers with greater cognitive abilities tend to have students who perform better.  An overall positive relationship appeared between a teacher’s verbal ability and student performance.  This attribute was also reflected in higher ACT scores associated with higher reading scores (Ferguson and Ladd 1996; Greenwald, Hedges, and Laine 1996).

The distribution of teachers who possess these characteristics of teacher quality is  inequitable across schools, with poor and minority students much less likely to get qualified teachers than those who are better off. 

  • African American students were about twice as likely to be taught by the least effective teachers(Sanders and Rivers 1996).
  • Students in high schools where the majority of students were poor were 77 percent more likely than their more affluent counterparts to be taught by teachers without degrees in the subject they were teaching.  Students in schools where the majority were non-white were 40 percent more likely to be taught by out-of-field teachers (Jerald and Ingersoll 2002).
  • Poor and minority students were about twice as likely to have teachers with less than three years of teaching experience; and districts in which the majority of students were poor or minority were considerably more likely to employ uncertified teachers (National Center for Education Statistics 2000; Darling-Hammond 1999).


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: October 4, 2005

© 2005 Center for Public Education

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