On the day President Obama's budget plans an overhaul of US education policy, it's probably appropriate to finally pass along this excellent Atlantic magazine piece about what makes a great teacher.


What did predict success, interestingly, was a history of perseverance--not just an attitude, but a track record. In the interview process, Teach for America now asks applicants to talk about overcoming challenges in their lives--and ranks their perseverance based on their answers. Angela Lee Duckworth, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and her colleagues have actually quantified the value of perseverance. In a study published in TheJournal of Positive Psychology in November 2009, they evaluated 390 Teach for America instructors before and after a year of teaching. Those who initially scored high for "grit"--defined as perseverance and a passion for long-term goals, and measured using a short multiple-choice test--were 31 percent more likely than their less gritty peers to spur academic growth in their students. Gritty people, the theory goes, work harder and stay committed to their goals longer. (Grit also predicts retention of cadets at West Point, Duckworth has found.)

But another trait seemed to matter even more. Teachers who scored high in "life satisfaction"--reporting that they were very content with their lives--were 43 percent more likely to perform well in the classroom than their less satisfied colleagues. These teachers "may be more adept at engaging their pupils, and their zest and enthusiasm may spread to their students," the study suggested.

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.

This year, D.C. public schools have begun using a new evaluation system for all faculty and staff, from teachers to custodians. Each will receive a score, just like the students, at the end of the year. For teachers whose students take standardized tests, like Mr. Taylor, half their score will be based on how much their students improved. The rest will be based largely on five observation sessions conducted throughout the year by their principal, assistant principal, and a group of master educators. Throughout the year, teachers will receive customized training. At year's end, teachers who score below a certain threshold could be fired.

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