Increasing the Number of Great Teachers Instead of Moving the Great Teachers Around

By 10/06/2009

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Great teachers make a big difference, but there aren’t enough great teachers to go around. So which students and schools should get them?

Last week, the House Committee on Education and Labor held a hearing on the topic of what the federal government can and should do to make the distribution of effective teachers more equitable. (The hearing is summarized by Steven Sawchuk of Ed Week here.)

Everyone likes the idea of boosting the number of effective teachers in schools with large numbers of poor and minority students, but in his testimony before the committee, Ed Next executive editor Rick Hess had a few warnings for those who think the obvious course of action is to encourage states and districts to move effective teachers out of schools with affluent kids and into schools with poor kids.

There are three particular concerns, Hess writes:

One is the risk that ill-conceived policies will encourage districts to move teachers from schools and classrooms where they are effective to situations when they are less effective. The second is the risk that heavy-handed efforts to reallocate teachers will drive good teachers from the profession. Either course promises to “shrink the pie” of good teaching in the effort to redistribute it. And the third concern is that we are far less able to identify “effective” teachers in any cookie-cutter fashion than many who call for federal action might wish.

On the first point, Hess points to research that suggests that teacher effectiveness may be contingent. Dee and Hanushek find that students benefit from having a teacher of the same race. Goldhaber has found that National Board certification predicts teacher quality very differently at different grade levels and in different subjects. And Duke researchers have found that the effect of teacher experience on student learning varies based on student race and family income.

On the second point, Hess notes that Ingersoll and others have found that teachers in high-poverty schools leave teaching at twice the rate of teachers in medium-poverty schools.

On the third point, Hess explains that value-added measures of teacher effectiveness are too imprecise and unreliable when just a few years of data are used to judge individual teachers.

He concludes:

The desire to more equitably distribute effective teachers is an admirable one. But let us take care not to undermine successful schools along the way. Let us avoid policies that will casually or reflexively strip-mine effective teachers from some schools in order to push them into others, especially if this will hobble schools that have been working well.

Comment on this article
  • Nan Richards says:

    Hess makes some good arguments. As a teacher who just moved from a school with primarily minority, low socioeconomic status students to a school with primarily white, middle class students, I can affirm that the school you teach in does have some bearing on your ability to be effective in the classroom. Oddly, I find myself struggling to meet the needs of my students in the new, and most would say less challenging, district that I’ve been transplanted into. Perhaps I am suffering from culture shock and will recover quickly, or perhaps I am suffering from a lack of neediness on the part of my pupils. Maybe I’m just overworked. Whatever the cause, I find myself feeling less passionate about my craft in my new surroundings.

  • Claus says:

    Hess offers a characteristically lucid analysis. It’s true that too many policymakers see teachers as troops to be deployed to different fronts. It’s also true that too many think tank dwellers see “good” teachers as widgets (a different sort of “widget effect”) who can be transplanted into different teaching environments with no loss of effectiveness.

    If we want to improve low-income students’ access to effective staff, we have to include effective pre-service training and staff development in the mix. Incentives alone will not do the trick….

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