Can You Identify A Good Teacher? No Chance!

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Do you think you could identify a successful teacher when you see one?

A provoking article published by David Evans, Lead Economist in the Chief Economist’s Office for the Africa Region of the World Bank claims: Looking for a shortcut to identifying great teachers? You may be out of luck.

Research: Teacher Performance

Research suggests that teachers in England had mixed views on the desirability of pay reforms with only 34% agreed that it resulted in a fair allocation of pay for staff in the school with most headteachers feeling that the pay reforms had not had an immediate impact on teacher recruitment and retention.

A number of studies have looked at the reliability of observation. Most cited of late, is the Measures of Effective Teaching Project which used various observation protocols to test reliability. Using inspection criteria, if a lesson is judged ‘Outstanding’ by one observer, this research suggests that the probability that a second person would give a different judgement is between 51% and 78%.

Identifying Good Teachers Is Challenging …

Evans writes, “Teachers are important. From Pakistan to Uganda to Ecuador to the United States, study after study shows that a good teacher can make a big difference in student learning. If we want more student learning, then it seems that “hire better teachers” or “make sure you retain the good teachers,” would be good bets. But identifying good teachers is challenging. The studies above measure the learning gains associated with being in a particular teacher’s class, but they don’t identify observable characteristics of good teachers, like “tall teachers are good teachers” or “brunette teachers are good teachers.” While those characteristics seem silly, some areas that seem like no-brainers – such as teacher education and experience – are not consistently correlated with student learning.

Many countries want to do a better job of identifying the best teachers (to retain and reward them) and the worst teachers (to help them and – in some cases – dismiss them). Some countries have begun to test teachers. The World Bank’s Service Delivery Indicators initiative has tested teachers’ pedagogical ability and basic math and reading ability in several countries, to largely dispiriting results. A further Ecuadorian study asks, “Do tests applied to teachers predict their effectiveness?

The short answer: In Ecuador, no.

Higher Pay And More Benefits

“How do we know?” asks Evans, who cites research from Ecuador and Peru which highlights that “tenured teachers have higher pay and more benefits” with one in three teachers on short-term contracts. Evidence from Peru compares students “taught by the same teacher in two subjects to see whether the students perform better in the subject where the teacher tests better, increases student achievement by about 9%.” A study of teacher performance in Argentina found identifying candidates who would go on to perform particularly poorly, but not so much for identifying future top performers.

Does this mean that teacher tests and evaluating their performance is worthless? Evans thinks ‘no’ and I would strongly disagree. Education is not a business model. If businesses are not happy with their resources, they can send them back to the manufacturers and seek to discover better imports and partners. Teachers and schools do not have this luxury, simply because teachers have to work with the students in front of them.

If business could learn one thing from education, it would be this. Fund schools better so that every teacher can be the best that they can be.

To be fair to Evans does add, “these results … are an important reminder that a teacher test is no magic bullet – and may be completely useless – in identifying great candidate” to be teachers. You can read the full article here.


6 thoughts on “Can You Identify A Good Teacher? No Chance!

  1. It is my job to be able to identify good teachers when I observe them; and not even just good teachers, but effective teachers–teachers who cause change in their students’ academic performance for the better–through their planning, using data from formative assessments to group students according to skills or strategies needs, and through lots of kid-watching and conferencing with students one-on-one to stay up close and personal with what interests their students and how their students learn best.

    Most importantly, though, is that these effective teachers actually make a move from being “teacher” to that of “facilitator” in all the ways that count: scaffolding or supporting students in their learning through mini-lessons, small groups, smaller groupings, and finally scaffolding to independence so that students are able to accomplish the work on their own successfully and can then begin to lead. The teacher can then move to the role of facilitator in setting up what independent learners need for a student-centered classroom. The teacher can then begin to “follow ” the students in the learning process as they undertake units of study and map out/plan what and how they will accomplish the standards-based learning. This actually frees the teacher up to take strategic notes, conference with small groups when the need arises, pull students for specialized mini-lessons when they need more understanding of the subject matter (frontloading; building background or schema).

  2. Another important thing to look at is how to exactly measure a good teacher. What criteria is being used to measure their effectiveness? If it’s solely based on a student’s growth on a standardized test score from one year to the next, then that is poor criteria, as I believe Purdue (If I recall correctly…) studies have already demonstrated. Some factors that will skew results of measuring teacher effectiveness (if solely based on test scores):

    What are the classroom dynamics? (a certain mix of kids can certainly make for a great challenge in the effort to maximize learning)
    How has a child’s personal life changed from one year to the next? (ex. divorce or death in the family)
    Speaking of school funding, has classroom size increased? Support services decreased?
    Have variables changed regarding the curriculum being used?
    How about the subjectivity of the scorers (I’ve seen much better writing score more poorly than writing, for example, that is just longer)?
    Background knowledge of the test taker? A student’s performance on a reading passage or writing topic can vary greatly depending on this variable.
    And what about the personal life of the teacher? Is he/she out of the classroom more often due to in-house professional development? Jury duty (my father – a retired teacher – was out one year every Wednesday for 16 weeks)? Other?
    Is there an administrative change, multiple school/district initiatives, a litigious parent (any of which can take significant time away from classroom planning)?

    All the above, off the top of my head, can alter a teacher’s “effectiveness” from one year to the next, which makes this a difficult topic. One thing’s for sure though, attracting and retaining good teachers is something that needs to be addressed, as all over there are serious shortages and/or declines in those even desiring to enter the profession.

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