In Search of the Top 25 Percent Teacher
Yesterday, Diane Ravitch took New York Times columnist NIcholas Kristof to task for his naive belief that a platoon of "miracle teachers" will save our schools.
Ravitch zeroes in on Kristof's unsophisticated use of an oft-quoted study on the importance of teachers:
A Los Angeles study suggested that four consecutive years of having a teacher from the top 25 percent of the pool would erase the black-white testing gap
This little research fragment has taken on a life of its own in the columns of otherwise astute national journalists who believe they have found The Answer to all that ails schools. Yet as Ravitch suggests, their platitudes about teacher quality raise far more questions than they answer. How do you identify the top 25 percent? Do we trust test student test scores? How do we identify the best new teachers, who don't yet have a track record? Are the "top" teachers effective in every setting? Are they effective with every type of student? Will they remain in the top 25 percent from one year to the next?
In fact, recent studies of teachers' effectiveness in consistently boosting student test performance have dealt a blow to the very idea of the "top 25 percent" teacher. Teachers who seem to add the most value for their students in one year--as measured by their students' test scores--can perform far worse on this measure in the following year. The teacher who remains in the top 25 percent for four or more years running is a rare creature, indeed. Outside factors--such as poor test design, disruptive students, student mobility, or inconsistent support for teachers--may influence scores from one year to the next.
We still have a long way to go before student test results alone will give us a very reliable picture of teacher effectiveness from year to year, and persistent underinvestment in state assessments certainly doesn't help matters.
Don't get me wrong. We at the Learning First Alliance believe that teacher effectiveness is critical to student success. This conviction undergirds our own work on recruiting and retaining effective teachers for hard-to-staff schools. We simply believe that there is more to a good teacher than an Ivy-League degree and impressive genes.
The problem with facile use of the "top 25 percent" argument is that it encourages some otherwise intelligent people to ignore the long-term conditions for teacher success: mentoring for new teachers; excellent professional development; sound content standards and curriculum; a safe and supportive working environment; consistent community support; etc. Yes, we want to attract the best people into the profession, but they may not remain the best--or ever reach their full potential--if they lack support.
Last year, an Education Sector report on the success of formerly low-performing elementary schools in Hamilton County (Chattanooga), Tennessee came to similar conclusions. With funding from the Public Education Fund and the Benwood Foundation in Chattanooga, these "Benwood schools" used incentives, professional support and strong leadership teams to fuel consistent, long-term improvements in student learning. (See Public School Insights' story about the Benwood schools here.)
The report concludes that teacher support is at least as important as teacher recruitment:
The arguments that these initiatives brought a flood of new and better teachers into the schools' classrooms have been overstated.... Benwood's success has had at least as much to do with a second, equally important teacher-reform strategy: helping teachers improve the quality of their instruction.
The top 25 percent teacher is a product of nurture, not just nature.
Click here to browse dozens of Public School Insights interviews with extraordinary education advocates, including:
- 2013 Digital Principal Ryan Imbriale
- Best Selling Author Dan Ariely
- Family Engagement Expert Dr. Maria C. Paredes
The views expressed in this website's interviews do not necessarily represent those of the Learning First Alliance or its members.
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