Race to the Top and the Search for Effective Teachers

Schools will hire one million new teachers in the next four years, according to a new NYT Magazine piece by Elizabeth Green. But how do we make them good teachers? That's the big question of the piece, and two months ago the Atlantic's Amanda Ripley offered some insights from the folks at Teach for America:

In general, though, Teach for America's staffers have discovered that past performance--especially the kind you can measure--is the best predictor of future performance. Recruits who have achieved big, measurable goals in college tend to do so as teachers. And the two best metrics of previous success tend to be grade-point average and "leadership achievement"--a record of running something and showing tangible results. If you not only led a tutoring program but doubled its size, that's promising.

In an interesting blog post that you should all read, Matt Yglesias notes that we need to have more available research on basic teaching strategies. Teaching is an intensely personal experience that is difficult to regulate with a best practices manual, but I think I agree that we could use more authoritative information about simple strategies that appear to flat out work, no matter who's standing at the head of the class.

In college, I spent time studying education reform in Asia. One finding was that some countries like Singapore -- which consistently scores near the top of most international standardized tests in reading and math -- include a centralized pedagogy training program that appears to be extremely successful. It would also certainly be rejected in the United States as undemocratic and unfeasible. So while I think studying successful models like Singapore is important, it's equally important to acknowledge that a south Asian city-state renowned for its draconian order might not be the "right" model for a sprawling federalist republic.

The natural inclination of US education policy is centrifugal. The Department of Education plays an important role, and has a budget of around $40 billion, but the fed leaves testing standards up to the states. And testing standards vary wildly. A lot of public school funding comes from local property taxes. And public school funding varies wildly, both inter- and intra-state. So the frustration (at least that I have) with designing an education policy, or even a teacher's comparative effectiveness portfolio, is that the United States education system is not the kind of system that will respond to pedagogical mandates from on high. It's already too steeped in the values of local control. Local control can be a good thing for parents, for teachers, for charter schools. But it's also more impervious to reform from an federal Education Policy -- with a capital E and P. What you're left with is the soft bribing of programs like Race to the Top.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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