Profound Implications for State Policy

By Chris Cerf and Peter Shulman 04/26/2012

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Commentary on “Great Teaching:Measuring its effects on students’ future earnings” By Raj Chetty, John N. Friedman and Jonah E. Rockoff

Over the last decade, research in public education has led us to three conclusions about the teaching profession: teachers are the most important in-school factor in determining student achievement; there is wide variation in teacher effectiveness; and those differences really matter for kids.

These findings should have profound implications for policymakers and practitioners. Now that we have evidence attesting to the enormous contributions of the most effective educators, if we are truly serious about improving student learning and closing the achievement gap, we must think anew about teacher recruitment, placement, evaluation, professional development, retention, and separation.

Raj Chetty, John Friedman, and Jonah Rockoff have helped advance the conversation through their longitudinal study of 2.5 million students over a 20-year span. The correlation between teacher effectiveness (as demonstrated by value-added student growth measures) and student life outcomes (higher salaries, advanced degrees, neighborhoods of residence, and retirement savings) is staggering; it’s not an exaggeration to say that great teachers substantially improve students’ future quality of life and those students’ contributions to the common good. Conversely, traditional education output measures like student course completion, grades, and diplomas have a substantial degree of subjectivity across schools and districts and can potentially provide a misleading account of a student’s college and career readiness.

In New Jersey, we are assessing where our finite resources are best invested. The Chetty study contrasts the opportunity cost of providing retention incentives to effective teachers with that of investments to attract new teachers. Similar cost/benefit questions arise in relation to shaping teacher-placement strategies, developing career ladders, and providing meaningful professional development. To make informed decisions in these areas, we first need to be able to differentiate among our teachers and, ideally, identify strengths to build on and weaknesses to address. That’s why the foundation of our human-capital efforts is a new educator-evaluation framework that’s substantially based on student learning outcomes. If we are able to assess an educator’s effectiveness accurately, we can improve the array of policies and practices that influence our teachers and school leaders. The hallmark of these efforts in our state will not be based on separating ineffective teachers but rather on using evaluation results to target resources toward improving teaching practice.

New Jersey is still in the early innings of this work. Eleven districts, through a pilot initiative, have joined with the state to create the new teacher-evaluation system. This collaboration has helped jump-start this work across the state and shed light on the many significant challenges associated with overhauling the hoary systems in place, such as measuring student achievement in “untested” grades and subjects, ensuring inter-rater agreement and accuracy of teacher practice observations, and ending the long-standing culture of “The Widget Effect.”

The primary takeaway from this critically important research, as the study authors note, is that “finding policies to raise the quality of teaching… is likely to have substantial economic and social benefits in the long run.” We agree with this conclusion, and New Jersey, like other states, must develop such policies over time through a confluence of national and local research, lessons learned from our classrooms, and an unwavering resolve to provide our students with high-quality teachers.

Chris Cerf is acting commissioner of education for the State of New Jersey. Peter Shulman is chief talent officer for the New Jersey Department of Education.

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