In our previous discussions here about how the standard of education provided in America’s public schools might be improved we keep circling back to two issues: teacher quality and effectiveness and their relationship (or non-relationship at present) to teacher tenure. On the surface the matter is simple enough – we need teachers to be effective, and we need to be able to get rid of those who are not. However, to operationalize such a policy requires a definition of what a good or effective teacher is or does and a metric for measuring said effectiveness. Since education occupies a somewhat romanticized space in the minds of many as a vocation, the question of what makes a teacher “good” is hotly debated. Isn’t it just that some people are inherently better at teaching and truly great teaching is dependent on intangibles that are too difficult to quantify? Maybe not. In this month’s edition of The Atlantic, Amanda Ripley explores the work done by Teach for America in identifying the qualities of outstanding teachers.
When reduced to bullet points it doesn’t seem like rocket science. Steven Farr, a Teach for America alumnus who is now in charge of training and support found that observations of their teachers who were able to make exceptional gains in the classroom revealed a pattern of habits and strategies common to them all:
First, great teachers tended to set big goals for their students. They were also perpetually looking for ways to improve their effectiveness. For example, when Farr called up teachers who were making remarkable gains and asked to visit their classrooms, he noticed he’d get a similar response from all of them: “They’d say, ‘You’re welcome to come, but I have to warn you—I am in the middle of just blowing up my classroom structure and changing my reading workshop because I think it’s not working as well as it could.’ When you hear that over and over, and you don’t hear that from other teachers, you start to form a hypothesis.” Great teachers, he concluded, constantly reevaluate what they are doing.
Superstar teachers had four other tendencies in common: they avidly recruited students and their families into the process; they maintained focus, ensuring that everything they did contributed to student learning; they planned exhaustively and purposefully—for the next day or the year ahead—by working backward from the desired outcome; and they worked relentlessly, refusing to surrender to the combined menaces of poverty, bureaucracy, and budgetary shortfalls.
These findings affirm what many people involved in teacher training believe – effective teaching does not come about by alchemy, it is based on concrete methods and ideas that can be taught or encouraged. But don’t be so quick to discount those fuzzy “intangibles”. They come back to bear where it comes to recruitment of suitable candidates for teacher training. How do you know which people are more likely to exhibit the tendencies of effective teachers? In the attempt to evaluate the suitability of applicants, Teach for America has tried to identify and measure qualities thought to contribute to future effectiveness such as history working in low-income areas, reflectiveness and a preference for “constant-learning”. What was found was despite this common sense approach to recruitment there was little correlation between identifying these qualities at the recruitment stage and the results these teachers produced later. What did matter was harder to pin down: relentlessness.
What did predict success, interestingly, was a history of perseverance—not just an attitude, but a track record. In the interview process, Teach for America now asks applicants to talk about overcoming challenges in their lives—and ranks their perseverance based on their answers. Angela Lee Duckworth, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and her colleagues have actually quantified the value of perseverance. In a study published in TheJournal of Positive Psychology in November 2009, they evaluated 390 Teach for America instructors before and after a year of teaching. Those who initially scored high for “grit”—defined as perseverance and a passion for long-term goals, and measured using a short multiple-choice test—were 31 percent more likely than their less gritty peers to spur academic growth in their students. Gritty people, the theory goes, work harder and stay committed to their goals longer. (Grit also predicts retention of cadets at West Point, Duckworth has found.)
Surprisingly an even more subjective quality than “grit” also has a great impact on teacher effectiveness
Teachers who scored high in “life satisfaction”—reporting that they were very content with their lives—were 43 percent more likely to perform well in the classroom than their less satisfied colleagues. These teachers “may be more adept at engaging their pupils, and their zest and enthusiasm may spread to their students,” the study suggested.
So how does all of this impact teacher tenure? In the article Ripley asserts that school systems would benefit from the Teach for America model of hiring, training and rewarding teachers. Indeed, yet another Teach for America alum, Jason Kamras, has developed a system of evaluation that will be used to with all faculty and staff in Washington D.C. schools starting this year.
Each will receive a score, just like the students, at the end of the year. For teachers whose students take standardized tests, (…) half their score will be based on how much their students improved. The rest will be based largely on five observation sessions conducted throughout the year by their principal, assistant principal, and a group of master educators. Throughout the year, teachers will receive customized training. At year’s end, teachers who score below a certain threshold could be fired.
While none of this seems wildly off base the premise does begs few questions. Teach for America teachers represent less than 2% of the teachers in the United States. By their own reckoning they draw from a pretty unusual pool of talent. The prestige attached to the program prompts some 35,000 applicants, chiefly from Ivy League universities, to vie for just over 4000 positions each year. The basic commitment is just two years and it looks very nice on a resume. This observation may not warrant the cynical generalization that all Teach for America applicants are in it for less than altruistic reasons, but we can’t pretend it doesn’t matter. Teach for America has the highly desirable extrinsic benefit of its cachet and the opportunities it affords alumni. What would be the rewards for the nearly 4 million teachers who enter the profession by more common routes and are then evaluated according to the Teach for America tenets? Aside from the threat of unemployment if they don’t deliver , and the career development benefits of customized training, where are the tangible rewards of remaining effective? If they will not be rewarded in the form of tenure, then there must be some other form of compensation.
It’s worth noting here that the push to end teacher tenure and the call for increased teacher accountability is not occurring in a vacuum. The desire to qualify for the funding available through Arne Duncan’s Race To The Top program cannot be discounted. There are lots of reasons that states are now reconsidering teacher effectiveness and tenure – 4.3 billion dollars worth. The motivation of money in education is something that often goes unspoken for a variety of reasons, but it is real. Not only for states and school districts but individual teachers. Even if teacher tenure is vastly modified and we place a greater emphasis on teacher accountability a familiar issue will remain that both predates and underscores these concerns. How do we drive more talent into teaching and encourage them to maintain drive and momentum if they are not regarded and paid on a professional scale?