Teacher Effectiveness: How to Develop What Matters Most

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Most people who work in education can point to a specific teacher who changed their life. For me, it was Mr. Hitchens and his AP English Language class. For you, it might be Mr. Brown’s seventh grade history class or Mrs. Peterson’s French class senior year. Any teacher whose name can be recalled ten or twenty or fifty years later with admiration could be described as both memorable and effective, but it is difficult to define these traits beyond particular examples.

What makes a teacher effective? How is effectiveness measured? How can we increase it? In an age where West Virginia teacher strikes make the national news and No Child Left Behind is brought up in presidential debates, these questions take on increasing importance and weight.

The Power of Teachers

Unsurprisingly, teacher quality is the single most powerful influence on student learning outcomes. In fact, the Rand Corporation states that teacher quality has two to three times the effect on student test scores of any other educational factor. Bill Sanders, a big name in teacher effectiveness research, gave a striking example of this phenomenon when he measured the academic achievement of third-grade students who were either placed with three high-performing teachers in a row or three low-performing teachers in a row. The children with the three low-performing teachers scored in the 44th percentile on average by the fifth grade whereas the children with the three high-performing teachers scored in the 96th percentile on average by the same time.

The students in the two groups had comparable academic records prior to third grade, so there is no explanation for the striking 52th percentile point difference other than the academic impact of effective or ineffective teachers. In fact, the students’ learning gains compounded across the three years and “depressed achievement results resisted improvement even after a student was placed with an effective teacher,” leading to a negative impact that was “discernible statistically for approximately three subsequent years.” Clearly, effective teachers are a crucial part of our education system; however, there are about as many ways to define teacher effectiveness as there are teachers.

The Great Debate

When students are surveyed about what makes their teachers effective, they often focus on how interesting and enjoyable the teacher makes the material. Close relationships with students, dedication to teaching, and desirable personality traits such as patience often also make the priority list for students. Teachers, however, view the matter somewhat differently; in their responses to the first survey, teachers chose subject matter knowledge as the most important quality of an effective teacher whereas student interest and teacher personality didn’t even make the list.

Certainly, an ideal teacher would be both knowledgeable and organized, both interesting and clear, but these different viewpoints already begin to reveal the varied expectations set for effective teachers.

Principals, parents, and education researchers have their own definitions of effective teaching too, often adding qualities to those already cited. The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, for example, defines an effective teacher as one who is formally trained, has high expectations, maximizes instructional time, monitors student learning, caters to all their students, and reflects on their craft. A research synthesis for The National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality mentions many of the same characteristics in their five-point model for effective teaching, though their definition also emphasizes the teacher’s ability to ensure “the success of students with special needs and those at high risk of failure.”

If some of these ideas seem difficult to measure, the University of Minnesota’s learning center sets forth a large number of specific observable characteristics of effective teaching, from “the instructor arrives to class on time” to “the instructor pauses after asking questions” to “course handouts are used effectively.” Whether you define an effective teacher generally in terms of how much fun their class is or specifically in terms of how punctual they are, it is imperative to have standardized ways of evaluating teacher quality.

Methods of Measurement

Two of the most common ways to assess teacher effectiveness are classroom observations and student test scores, both of which have strengths and weaknesses when done exclusively. Classroom observations are a direct measure of teacher effectiveness because they focus on the act of teaching itself. They can reveal observable qualities of a teacher, such as their relationship with students and their teaching style, that can’t be measured from test scores alone.

That being said, observations are limited in a number of ways. They are short, often measuring less than 1% of a teacher’s total time teaching during any given year; they are artificial, leading both teachers and students to act differently than usual; and they are volatile, skewing a teacher’s record easily by a very bad day or a very good one. I don’t know any teacher, no matter how effective, who hasn’t had at least one day of teaching that they are very glad wasn’t observed out of the blue.

Using student learning outcomes, such as test scores, to measure teacher effectiveness remediates some of the problems with classroom observation while posing some new ones. As researchers Pamela Tucker and James Stronge point out, using learning outcomes doesn’t take into account other academic influences such as principals, class sizes, and material resources. In addition, if tests are only given at the end of the year, they don’t necessarily measure a student’s learning that year as much as their lifelong learning until that day; as we saw from Bill Sander’s study on third graders, a low-performing teacher from a previous year might drag down a student’s performance years later. Education consultant Charlotte Danielson suggests that, to make sure we are truly measuring an individual teacher’s effectiveness, assessments to measure student learning should be curriculum-focused and given at the beginning of the year as well as the end.

Ideally, in order to get a true sense of any teacher’s effectiveness, the teacher’s skills should be measured in as many different ways as possible—at the very least, both from observations and from student learning outcomes. Unfortunately, these evaluations are often used solely to keep teachers (and the schools they work in) accountable to parents and taxpayers. As Danielson points out, “whereas teacher evaluation could be a powerful point of reflection, support, and growth, it’s often used solely for punitive purposes.” Using measures of teacher effectiveness to help teachers grow as well as assess them is the first of many ways to improve and support our teachers.

Increasing Effectiveness Individually

Fortunately, there are many individual and structural changes that are proven to make teachers more effective. One individual practice of effective teachers is consistently seeking feedback from their students. After all, who better can tell what is going right and wrong in a classroom than the people who sit in it every day? Classroom Assessments Techniques (CAT) are a way to get feedback on your students’ learning, both specifically after an assignment or class period and generally as the year progresses. Examples of CAT include the Background Knowledge Probe, The Minute Paper, and The Muddiest Point. To end a class with The Minute Paper, ask students to write down their answers to the following questions, “What was the most important thing you learned during this class?” and “What questions remain for you?” Using The Minute Paper, or any of the CAT, not only gives you a sense of what your students are learning (and missing), but it also helps you connect to students, shows you care about your students’ learning, and helps your students become better monitors of their own learning.

Another way to improve teacher effectiveness on an individual level is to seek consistent growth, year by year and day by day. As author Stephen Brookfield suggests, teachers can grow by practicing critical reflection, which he defines as “the sustained and intentional process of identifying and checking the accuracy and validity of our teaching assumptions.” These assumptions can be conscious pedagogical ones, such as “discussion is always the best way for students to learn,” or larger subconscious assumptions about race, gender, or class. Every teacher inevitably develops beliefs based on their own educational experiences, their mentors and favorite pedagogical texts, and their current teaching situations. We can all become more effective if we are aware of assumptions that could be holding us back; this self-knowledge allows us to grow and become more flexible as we gain experience rather than becoming more rigid.

Finally, an important practice of effective teachers is to continually assess and reassess the educational tools that we use. Rubrics, in particular, are an important place to refine; for more on the power of effective rubrics and how to construct them, click here.

Increasing Effectiveness Structurally

Although every teacher can (and should) seek to improve their own craft, many of the best ways to improve teacher effectiveness are structural, large-scale shifts.

The Learning Policy Institute proposes four solutions to improve teacher quality: we need to 1) increase class stability (i.e. teachers should teach the same classes and grade levels multiple times), 2) encourage strong mentoring relationships between teachers, 3) avoid putting a high concentration of new teachers in any one school (especially low income and struggling schools), and 4) decrease turnover. This last point is particularly important because “although the research does not indicate that the passage of time will make all teachers better or incompetent teachers effective, it does indicate that, for most teachers, effectiveness increases with experience.” Another way to increase teacher retention rates (and therefore increase the number of experienced effective teachers in a given school) is to encourage teacher preparation programs, which supplement content knowledge with teaching ability. 

In addition to implementing these solutions, it is important to recognize the challenges which are currently holding teachers back from meeting their full potential. When surveyed in 2010, teachers named a few of their biggest challenges to be overly large class sizes, overbearing parents, distracting technology in the classroom, small salaries, and funding challenges. While some of these issues are political in nature and therefore difficult to resolve quickly, the issue of class size can be alleviated by The Graide Network’s commitment to providing quality feedback on any paper-based assignment for any class, no matter how large. The Graide Network substantially reduces grading time so that teachers can spend their time more effectively, allowing for more time drafting lesson plans, refining rubrics, and reflecting on their own teaching practices. To find out more about how The Graide Network can help your teachers become more effective, contact us.

As we’ve seen, the definitions of teacher effectiveness are varied, the tools to measure it are imperfect, and the barriers facing teachers are many, but the way forward is through feedback, reflection, and growth—for both teachers and students.