NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Make Higher Student Achievement Chief Objective for Teachers

February 17, 2011

Research consistently demonstrates that there are very important differences among teachers, but teacher skills are not captured by the most commonly used measurements -- teacher qualifications, degrees, years of experience and the like, says Eric Hanushek, the Paul and Jean Hanna Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution.

If we can't identify the best teachers by comparing their credentials, how do we define a good teacher?

  • The best way -- indeed the only objective way currently available -- is to observe his or her classroom performance and specifically what students learn.
  • From this new perspective, a good teacher is one who consistently evokes large gains in student learning, while a poor teacher is one who consistently gets small gains in student learning.

The magnitude of the differences in effectiveness among teachers is impressive.

  • Looking at the range of quality for teachers within a single large urban district, teachers near the top of the quality distribution elicited an entire year's worth of additional learning out of their students (during a single academic year) compared to those near the bottom.
  • Looking at just the variations in performance from differences in teacher quality within a typical school, the statistical analyses indicate that moving from an average quality teacher to one ranked among the top 15 percent of all teachers can be expected to move the average student up more than 8 percentile rankings during the course of a school year.
  • In other words, an average student who got one of these good teachers would move from the middle of the achievement distribution (the 50th percentile) to the 58th percentile.

Like all human beings, teachers respond to the incentives that are placed in front of them -- and the current incentive systems used in public education do not make higher student achievement the chief objective.  An obvious solution is to focus performance incentives for teachers and other school personnel on student achievement.

The ultimate goal of the incentive systems must be to attract, encourage and reward high-performing teachers while pushing low-performing teachers toward either improving their efforts or leaving the profession altogether, says Hanushek.

Source: Eric Hanushek, "Why Is It So Hard To Make Teachers Better?" Defining Ideas, January 30, 2011.

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