(Washington, DC) -- Today, schools, districts and states are under increasing pressure both to raise overall student achievement and to close historic gaps separating poor and minority students from others. A new report released today by the Education Trust argues that those twin goals are achievable, but only if states act immediately to put into place comprehensive systems to measure and improve teacher quality, and to get the match between teachers and students right.
The paper, The Real Value of Teachers: Using New Information about Teacher Effectiveness to Close the Achievement Gap, lays out an ambitious policy agenda, premised on an exhaustive review of the existing research on teacher effectiveness—often referred to as “value-added.” That research, which has been conducted over the past decade in Tennessee, Texas, and several big city school districts, confirms what parents have always known: teachers have the biggest impact on student achievement.
“The differences separating teachers cannot be attributed to differences in students, because value-added systems isolate the teacher’s impact by controlling for prior student achievement and other factors,” said Kevin Carey, Senior Policy Analyst and author of the report. “Value-added data show that, even in the same schools or districts, even with kids whose prior achievement was similar, some teachers get great gains while others allow achievement to lag.”
According to Kati Haycock, Director of the Education Trust, “Teacher effectiveness data systems are an essential and powerful tool in the effort to raise achievement and close the achievement gap. These systems allow us to find out which teachers are the most effective and match them with the students who need them the most. We can also find out which teachers need help and what types of professional development are most effective in helping them grow.”
That’s very good news, because it allows policymakers in and outside education to focus their improvement efforts where they can have the biggest impact.
But this hopeful message is tempered by two stark realities documented in the report.
- First, teacher effectiveness varies significantly. Value-added research shows that some teachers stimulate more than twice as much learning as the average teacher, while some teachers are teaching their students very little. According to the director of research in one big city school district, “use of the system for ten years has clearly demonstrated that effective and ineffective classrooms can be clearly, reliably, and fairly identified based on the achievement of their students…The District considers this to be a closed issue.”
- Second, low-income students—the very students who are most dependent on their teachers for academic learning—are much less likely to get effective teachers in their classrooms than non-poor students. An appendix to the paper, entitled “The Opportunity Gap,” surveys the latest research to document that, by every available measure, low-income and minority students get fewer good teachers.
“As a society, we have to own up to a basic ethical failing,” said Carey. “We take the most vulnerable students in public education and we persistently and pervasively assign them to our weakest teachers.”
The report explains how policymakers and education leaders can move past the politically charged and ideologically driven debates over certification, pedagogy, and how to define a “highly qualified” teacher. By focusing on teachers’ demonstrated ability to help children learn, value-added systems allow us to learn about what makes good teachers good.
Despite the obvious benefits of having better data on teacher effectiveness, until recently, only a limited number of districts and only one state were using such systems. Recently, however, interest in value-added has recently emerged as a consensus-building strategy for raising teacher quality. Consider, for example:
- In the first recommendation in its recently released report, The Teaching Commission (chaired by former IBM Chairman Lou Gerstner) called for value-added teacher evaluations.
- The Ohio Partnership for Accountability—which includes the Ohio Department of Education, the Ohio Board of Regents, and all 51 schools of education—recently agreed to use value-added teacher effectiveness data to evaluate the quality of teacher preparation in the state, and are doing so with the participation of both of the state’s largest teachers unions.
- In Denver, the school district and the teachers union leadership recently agreed to extend the use of value-added data from its current limited, pilot status to a district-wide pay-for-performance policy.
- In the Carnegie Corporation’s national initiative to create state-of-the-art schools of education, participating institutions must commit to developing systems for measuring “pupil learning gains accomplished under the tutelage of teachers who are graduates of the program.”
- To encourage the spread of similar practices in other education schools, the US House of Representatives has included in its version of Title II of the new Higher Education Act a requirement that states receiving grants to improve teacher quality under the act put into place value-added systems.
As policy leaders around the country consider these developments, many important questions are being asked: How does value-added work? Is it fair to teachers? How can value-added data improve the way we prepare teachers and support them once they’re in the classroom?
The Education Trust paper offers answers to these questions. It explains how value-added data promises to bring clarity and verifiable data to critical policy questions. It also creates a road-map for identifying our best teachers, and for producing and retaining more of them.
While the paper focuses primarily on the benefits for kids, the benefits of value-added systems are equally clear for schools and for teachers themselves – many of whose accomplishments go unnoticed and unheralded because of the absence of good data.
As Carey’s report concludes, ”The idea of effective teachers helping needy students has tremendous power. It reaffirms the promise of public education and its ability to make all the difference in students’ lives. It is a powerful solvent to the inertia and sense of helplessness that have infiltrated the ideas and cultures of our public schools. It is a catalyst for radical improvement in almost every facet of education. Good teachers can close the achievement gap, if we can only find them and let them do their work.”