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Where do star teachers come from?

October 29, 2010

Rebecca Allen and Simon Burgess

 

This Sunday sees the culmination of the National Teachers Awards weekend, with a televised presentation of prizes. This seems very appropriate – in terms of the impact on learning outcomes, hardly anything matters as much as having a good teacher. This is not an empty platitude – research shows that the effect size of having effective versus ineffective teachers is very large relative to most educational interventions. For example, in terms of higher grades achieved, having more effective teachers beats smaller class sizes.

So where do good teachers come from? Are they born or are they made? Research undertaken here and in the US can throw some light on this.

First, the evidence shows convincingly that being a good teacher does not come with experience. Student progress improves for the first two years of a teacher’s career, but not thereafter. It seems that, after the first two years at least, good teachers have always been good teachers.

Second, having the kind of intelligence that is measured by a good university degree really doesn’t matter. CMPO evidence for England shows that a teacher’s effectiveness was uncorrelated with the degree class that s/he obtained. This finding mirrors others from the US:  the skills needed to be a great teacher are just different to those needed to pass degree exams. The best teachers perform well across age ranges and abilities of pupils, and are capable of showing regard for the student perspective, which highlights why cognitive skills are not particularly important.

Some recent intriguing evidence from the US correlates teaching styles with the new measures of teacher effectiveness used by economists. If supported by further studies, this offers the hope that researchers can identify how good teachers teach and emphasise these elements in teacher training. Before that time, good teachers are essentially born not made.

More generally, it seems that picking a good teacher pre-hire is hard.  Writing in the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell asked ‘Who do we hire when we can’t tell who’s right for the job?’.  He described the teaching profession as: “There are certain jobs where almost nothing you can learn about candidates before they start predicts how they’ll do once they’re hired.” US economists Kane and Staiger suggest that we need to try out four candidates to find one good teacher.  Gladwell suggests that, given cognitive skills are relatively unimportant, we should lower entry standards to “having a pulse and a basic college education”.  As he says: “We should be lowering [standards], because there is no point in raising standards if standards don’t track with what we care about.”

We should rightly celebrate the star teachers, even if we don’t know much about how we found them, or how to make some more.

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