What Makes a Great Teacher?

For years, the secrets to great teaching have seemed more like alchemy than science, a mix of motivational mumbo jumbo and misty-eyed tales of inspiration and dedication. But for more than a decade, one organization has been tracking hundreds of thousands of kids, and looking at why some teachers can move them three grade levels ahead in a year and others can’t. Now, as the Obama administration offers states more than $4 billion to identify and cultivate effective teachers, Teach for America is ready to release its data.
More
Veronika Lukasova

Also in our Special Report:


National: "How America Can Rise Again"

Is the nation in terminal decline? Not necessarily. But securing the future will require fixing a system that has become a joke.

Video: "One Nation, On Edge"
James Fallows talks to Atlantic editor James Bennet about a uniquely American tradition—cycles of despair followed by triumphant rebirths.

Interactive Graphic: "The State of the Union Is ..."
... thrifty, overextended, admired, twitchy, filthy, and clean: the nation in numbers. By Rachael Brown

Chart: "The Happiness Index"
Times were tough in 2009. But according to a cool Facebook app, people were happier. By Justin Miller

On August 25, 2008, two little boys walked into public elementary schools in Southeast Washington, D.C. Both boys were African American fifth-graders. The previous spring, both had tested below grade level in math.

One walked into Kimball Elementary School and climbed the stairs to Mr. William Taylor’s math classroom, a tidy, powder-blue space in which neither the clocks nor most of the electrical outlets worked.

The other walked into a very similar classroom a mile away at Plummer Elementary School. In both schools, more than 80 percent of the children received free or reduced-price lunches. At night, all the children went home to the same urban ecosystem, a zip code in which almost a quarter of the families lived below the poverty line and a police district in which somebody was murdered every week or so.



Video: Four teachers in Four different classrooms demonstrate methods that work
(Courtesy of Teach for America’s video archive, available in February at teachingasleadership.org)

At the end of the school year, both little boys took the same standardized test given at all D.C. public schools—not a perfect test of their learning, to be sure, but a relatively objective one (and, it’s worth noting, not a very hard one).

After a year in Mr. Taylor’s class, the first little boy’s scores went up—way up. He had started below grade level and finished above. On average, his classmates’ scores rose about 13 points—which is almost 10 points more than fifth-graders with similar incoming test scores achieved in other low-income D.C. schools that year. On that first day of school, only 40 percent of Mr. Taylor’s students were doing math at grade level. By the end of the year, 90 percent were at or above grade level.

As for the other boy? Well, he ended the year the same way he’d started it—below grade level. In fact, only a quarter of the fifth-graders at Plummer finished the year at grade level in math—despite having started off at about the same level as Mr. Taylor’s class down the road.

This tale of two boys, and of the millions of kids just like them, embodies the most stunning finding to come out of education research in the past decade: more than any other variable in education—more than schools or curriculum—teachers matter. Put concretely, if Mr. Taylor’s student continued to learn at the same level for a few more years, his test scores would be no different from those of his more affluent peers in Northwest D.C. And if these two boys were to keep their respective teachers for three years, their lives would likely diverge forever. By high school, the compounded effects of the strong teacher—or the weak one—would become too great.

Parents have always worried about where to send their children to school; but the school, statistically speaking, does not matter as much as which adult stands in front of their children. Teacher quality tends to vary more within schools—even supposedly good schools—than among schools.

But we have never identified excellent teachers in any reliable, objective way. Instead, we tend to ascribe their gifts to some mystical quality that we can recognize and revere—but not replicate. The great teacher serves as a hero but never, ironically, as a lesson.

At last, though, the research about teachers’ impact has become too overwhelming to ignore. Over the past year, President Barack Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, have started talking quite a lot about great teaching. They have shifted the conversation from school accountability— the rather worn theme of No Child Left Behind, President George W. Bush’s landmark educational reform—to teacher accountability. And they have done it using one very effective conversational gambit: billions of dollars.

Thanks to the stimulus bonanza, Duncan has lucked into a budget that is more than double what a normal education secretary gets to spend. As a result, he has been able to dedicate $4.3 billion to a program he calls Race to the Top. To be fair, that’s still just a tiny fraction of the roughly $100 billion in his budget (much of which the government direct-deposits into the bank accounts of schools, whether they deserve the money or not). But especially in a year when states are projecting $16 billion in school-budget shortfalls, $4.3 billion is real money. “This is the big bang of teacher-effectiveness reform,” says Timothy Daly, president of the New Teacher Project, a nonprofit that helps schools recruit good teachers. “It’s huge.”

Despite the perky name, Race to the Top is a marathon—and a potentially grueling one; to win, states must take a series of steps that are considered radical in the see-no-evil world of education, where teachers unions have long fought efforts to measure teacher performance based on student test scores and link the data to teacher pay. States must try to identify great teachers, figure out how they got that way, and then create more of them. “This is the wave of the future. This is where we have to go—to look at what’s working and what’s not,” Duncan told me. “It sounds like common sense, but it’s revolutionary.”

Based on his students’ test scores, Mr. Taylor ranks among the top 5 percent of all D.C. math teachers. He’s entertaining, but he’s not a born performer. He’s well prepared, but he’s been a teacher for only three years. He cares about his kids, but so do a lot of his underperforming peers. What’s he doing differently?

One outfit in America has been systematically pursuing this mystery for more than a decade—tracking hundreds of thousands of kids, and analyzing why some teachers can move those kids three grade levels ahead in one year and others can’t. That organization, interestingly, is not a school district.

Teach for America, a nonprofit that recruits college graduates to spend two years teaching in low-income schools, began outside the educational establishment and has largely remained there. For years, it has been whittling away at its own assumptions, testing its hypotheses, and refining its hiring and training. Over time, it has built an unusual laboratory: almost half a million American children are being taught by Teach for America teachers this year, and the organization tracks test-score data, linked to each teacher, for 85 percent to 90 percent of those kids. Almost all of those students are poor and African American or Latino. And Teach for America keeps an unusual amount of data about its 7,300 teachers—a pool almost twice the size of the D.C. system’s teacher corps.

Until now, Teach for America has kept its investigation largely to itself. But for this story, the organization allowed me access to 20 years of experimentation, studded by trial and error. The results are specific and surprising. Things that you might think would help a new teacher achieve success in a poor school—like prior experience working in a low-income neighborhood—don’t seem to matter. Other things that may sound trifling—like a teacher’s extracurricular accomplishments in college—tend to predict greatness.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Amanda Ripley is the author of The Smartest Kids in the World—and How They Got That Way (coming August 2013).

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Hunting With Poison Darts

An indigenous forest dweller in Borneo explains one of his tribe's oldest customs: the art of the blowpipe.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

I Am an Undocumented Immigrant

"I look like a typical young American."

Video

Juice Cleanses: The Worst Diet

A doctor tries the ever-popular Master Cleanse. Sort of.

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Video

What If Emoji Lived Among Us?

A whimsical ad imagines what life would be like if emoji were real.

Video

Living Alone on a Sailboat

"If you think I'm a dirtbag, then you don't understand the lifestyle."

Writers

Up
Down

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In