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Report: High-achieving teachers make for high-achieving kids

One example of the narrowing gap in teachers’ academic qualifications. (From Wyckoff, J. et al., 2008) Teach For America, the program that places recent college graduates in high-need schools, has long drawn criticism for recruiting people who leave the classroom after only a few years. Critics say this perpetuates a cycle where poor students get inexperienced teachers.

But in reality, programs such as Teach for America and the city’s Teaching Fellows program have made the distribution of high-achieving teachers more equitable across New York City and might have helped narrow the gap in students’ test scores, a recent study concludes.

Between 2000 and 2005, these programs drove an improvement in the academic qualifications — SAT scores, college selectivity, and other measures — of teachers at schools with lots of poor students. At the same time, the test scores in those schools rose. The researchers’ analysis suggested that the increase in qualifications contributed to the higher scores.

In fact, the new teachers’ stellar academic qualifications made up for as much as half of their lack of experience, the study concluded. And Jim Wyckoff, a University of Virginia professor who was one of the authors of the study, told me his analysis suggested that if schools only “hired teachers who looked like the best group,” or the very best college graduates, student achievement could rise even more.

To continue raising performance at schools with lots of poor students, the authors conclude, the city should aggressively recruit the very best college graduates to enter its teaching force.

The authors conclude two policy changes were key to helping attract academically successful students. First, New York State created alternative pathways into teaching (such as through the Teaching Fellows program) and made those the only route into the classroom for unlicensed teachers. The other was New York City’s salary increases, especially for newer teachers.

Still, the authors point out, teaching quality can’t always, or fully, be accounted for by either experience or academic qualifications. The city should focus on providing professional development that targets the specific needs of individual teachers, they say.