The Dismal Science

How To Build a Better Teacher

Is firing bad instructors the only way to improve schools? New evidence suggests that poor teachers can learn to be good ones.


Perhaps good teachers can be made after all, and not just born

Photograph by Thinkstock.

The conversation about how to improve American education has taken on an increasingly confrontational tone. The caricature often presented in the press depicts hard-driving, data-obsessed reformers—who believe the solution is getting rid of low-performing teachers—standing off against unions—who don’t trust any teaching metric and care more about their jobs than the children they’re supposed to be educating.

But in some ways the focus on jobs misses the point. As New York State Education Commissioner John King has pointed out, with the exception of urban hubs like New York and L.A., few school districts have the luxury of firing low-performing teachers with the knowledge that new recruits will line up to take their places.*

If we take firing off the table, what else can be done to resolve America’s education crisis? The findings of several recent studies by psychologists, economists, and educators show that—despite many reformers’ claims to the contrary—it may be possible to make low-performing teachers better, instead of firing them. If these studies can be replicated throughout entire school systems and across the country, we may be at the beginning of a revolution that will build a better educational system for America.

The view that good teachers are born, not made, is based on the many studies that have found that various training credentials and certifications have no effect on a given teacher’s “value-added,” the amount by which he or she increases the test scores of students above and beyond what you’d expect based on their performance in earlier grades. A degree in education seems to make no difference. Nor do higher salaries. (Value-added measures have their own set of critics, who wonder whether the measures—or even the underlying test scores—capture anything of use. Yet recent research does suggest that the students of high value-added teachers go on to earn significantly more later in life.)

But there’s a big difference between saying that we have yet to find an approach that has been shown to have a measurable impact on a teacher performance and claiming that none exists. Indeed, the Gates Foundation and others are making big bets that the secret to teacher improvement can be found, and there’s reason to hope that they may carry the day. They point to success stories like the Harlem Children’s Zone and the Knowledge Is Power Program charter schools, which consistently improve the test scores of students randomized into their classrooms through lotteries. Pedagogy gurus like Norm Atkins, meanwhile, have developed teacher-training curricula that they believe can make anyone teach better.

But do the training regimens at these schools actually contribute to their success? There are many reasons why a particular school or charter system might succeed in getting its students to excel, and not all of these have to do with improving the classroom performance of teachers who are already on staff: Superstar charter networks may be particularly well led (education commissioner John King once ran the Uncommon Schools, another high-performing charter system), or maintain a policy of getting rid of bad teachers (or even unmotivated students). It may also simply be too expensive to scale their approaches across the country. The Harlem Children’s Zone erased the black-white achievement gap in math, but doing so was very expensive. As Harvard economist Roland Fryer put it, “The HCZ model demonstrates that the right cocktail of investments can be successful. The challenge is to find lower-cost ways to achieve similar results in regular public schools.”

Yet there is growing evidence that you may not need to hand out stacks of pink slips—or have a very tall stack of greenbacks—to improve teacher quality. When I asked education scholar Doug Staiger where the most promising evidence lay, he referred me to an assessment of the Teacher Evaluation System that was implemented in Cincinnati public schools in 2000-01.

Cincinnati’s approach combines evaluation by expert teachers—who observe classroom performance and also critique lesson plans and other written materials—with feedback based on those evaluations, to help teachers figure out how to improve. The study that professor Staiger described, by Eric Taylor of Stanford and John Tyler of Brown, focused on teachers in grades 4-8 who were already in the school system in 2000, which allowed the researchers to examine, for a given teacher, the test scores of their pupils before, during, and after evaluation was performed and feedback received. And because the TES was phased in gradually, the researchers could compare the performance of teachers who had already been evaluated and received feedback to those who were still awaiting their TES treatment. This ensured that any change in test scores wasn’t just the result of a general improvement in Cincinnati’s schools concurrent with the implementation of TES.

The results of the study suggest that TES-style feedback and coaching holds promise—Taylor and Tyler estimate that participating in TES has an effect on students’ standardized math test scores that is equivalent to taking a teacher that is worse than three-quarters of his peers and making him about average. The effects of participation only get stronger with time: If teachers were simply performing better because they saw their evaluator sitting at the back of the classroom, you’d expect only a onetime improvement in student outcomes during the evaluation year. Instead, TES participants’ performance is even greater in subsequent years. And the expense of creating, if not a great teacher, at least a decent one, is fairly modest—the cost of TES was about $7,000 per teacher. (Unfortunately, Cincinnati’s approach to evaluation and feedback has yet to catch on—a 2009 survey by the New Teacher Project found that school districts rarely use evaluation for any purpose other than remediation and dismissal.)

But the results are still tentative: The researchers followed only 105 teachers into the program, and were only able to observe 61 of these following participation in TES—the others stopped teaching in grade 4-8 classrooms where students took state math tests, or participated in TES only in the final year of the study. Also, the authors note that TES had no effect on reading scores (though generally there’s less evidence of wide variability in the ability of individual teachers to consistently raise students’ test scores in language arts).

How did the teaching style of TES participants change as a result of their experience? And which aspects of teaching actually mattered for helping students perform better? A separate study by Taylor, Tyler, and others tries to deconstruct Cincinnati’s teaching evaluation into its constituent components to see which ones really mattered. For example, which is more important: to make sure that students are well-behaved and focused on their work, or to promote critical thinking among students? The results are speculative at best—for the most part, teachers who do well on one aspect of teaching also do well on others, making it difficult to parse out the effect of any one component.

But if it’s unrealistic to expect that we’ll ever discover a pedagogical silver bullet that makes a great teacher, it may be possible, guided by insights from social psychology, to find individual interventions that do have outsize effects on student learning at relatively modest cost.

Another intriguing example of this comes from my colleague at Columbia University, psychologist Valerie Purdie-Vaughns. Vaughns is part of a team of researchers that has run a series of experiments at schools in New York City and elsewhere in the Northeast to examine whether the way teachers provide feedback to students can have a material effect on their performance, particularly for minority students who often feel threatened by stereotypes of low academic achievement.

Providing feedback to underachieving students presents a catch-22. Constant criticism can be demotivating. But Lake Wobegon-style feedback, where even low-quality work wins lavish praise, quickly loses any meaning, or may even lead students to believe that they’re incapable of doing well and thus held to a low standard.

Vaughns and her colleagues conjectured that providing feedback that is critical and holds a student to a high standard, but at that same time makes clear that the student is capable of excellence, would achieve better results. Through a series of double-blind experiments, the researchers tested their theories in high schools and middle schools to see the effect that this type of “wise” feedback had on student effort and accomplishments.

In one experiment, for example, Vaughns and her colleagues simply appended a note to teachers’ comments on student essays that said, “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.” 64 percent of black students who received the note were motivated to revise their papers, as compared to 27 percent of a control set of students who received a note that simply stated, “I’m giving you these comments so that you’ll have feedback on your paper.” Students who received “wise” feedback ended up with higher grades, as well. Based on the results of a related experiment, the researchers suggest that simply explaining to minority students that critical feedback from teachers should be seen not as putdowns but as an indication of high potential may go a long way in reducing the achievement gap between blacks and whites.

A second study, released this week by the National Bureau of Economic Research, exploits the tools of social psychology to motivate teachers rather than students. The researchers (including Roland Fryer of the Harlem Children’s Zone study) experimented with incentive pay for teachers at a group of K-8 schools. Past efforts at pay-for-good-teaching haven’t been very effective in improving student performance. Fryer and his colleagues tweaked the pay-for-performance approach to give teachers a $4,000 bonus payment upfront, and informing them that some or all of the money would have to be returned if their students failed to meet performance targets. This approach takes advantage of the fact that most people will work harder to avoid a loss rather than earn a bonus—so-called loss aversion—an idea first developed by famed psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. The authors’ calculations suggest the “loss incentive” was extremely motivating, enough to transform a bad teacher into a mediocre one, or to provoke excellent results from a teacher that had previously been just average.

Both the wise feedback and pay-for-loss-avoidance studies should be seen as promising, yet preliminary—there’s a lot that can go wrong in scaling up such small trials to a nationwide rollout. But they represent exactly the sort of experimentation, built on well-founded insights, that can help to get better teachers in front of America’s students—and maybe even help to bring the warring factions in the education debate a bit closer together.

Correction, July 30, 2012: This article originally misstated John King’s title as schools chancellor. (Return.)