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Washington Examiner


Teacher Competence Counts More Than Credentials

September 15, 2011

By Marcus A. Winters

Given the challenges facing American public education today, identifying effective teachers is a more vital task than ever before.

A wide body of student achievement research shows that teachers are the most important school-based factor -- that is, not having to do with the student’s innate cognitive abilities or family background. Unfortunately, the current system does a poor job at identifying the effective and ineffective teachers. That system needs to be changed.

In the U.S. public school system today, the method used to determine teacher effectiveness -- and thus to drive salary, promotion and tenure decisions -- is based on a few external credentials.

Those are chiefly certification, advanced degrees and years of experience in the classroom. Public schools don’t consider any measure of how well a teacher actually performs in the classroom.

In a new study to be published in the peer-reviewed journal Economics and Education Review, my co-authors and I measure the relationship between such credentials and a teacher’s effectiveness.

Essentially, our data matched public school elementary students in Florida to their teachers over several years and measured whether a student’s performance improved when he was assigned to a teacher with a particular set of credentials.

We found no relationship between a teacher earning a master’s degree, teaching certification, or years of experience and the teacher’s classroom performance as measured by student test scores.

Though we found that some pedagogy coursework influenced teaching effectiveness, the magnitude of the effect was mild.

Our results confirm a wide body of existing research. Not one of the 34 studies that used a “high quality” methodology (meaning that it accounted for prior student test scores) evaluated in a recent review of the research by Eric Hanushek and Steven Rivkin found a relationship between a teacher earning a master’s degree and student achievement.

Empirical research on the effect of classroom experience yields more complex results than research on teacher credentials, but it is, in the end, just as discouraging.

Most research does in fact find a positive relationship between the number of years a teacher has spent in the classroom and her influence on student achievement -- but the benefit of that experience appears to plateau after the third to fifth year.

Typically, research suggests that about 3 percent to 5 percent of the teacher’s contribution to her student’s math and reading scores can be explained by factors such as professional credentials and years of experience.

By focusing exclusively on such factors, the current system ignores more than 97 percent of what makes one teacher more effective than another. The structure of the current system is simply indefensible, given modern research findings.

There is nothing inherently wrong with relying on proxies for effectiveness when making employment decisions. However, when those proxies fail to differentiate meaningfully between the most and least productive workers, they should be jettisoned.

The findings of our research and other studies suggest that public schools should transform their employment systems so that they prioritize measures of the teacher’s actual effectiveness in the classroom.

School systems should develop comprehensive evaluation systems that utilize both quantitative (e.g., test scores) and qualitative (e.g., classroom observation) measures of teacher effectiveness.

The results of these evaluations should be used to determine which teachers are kept in the classroom, how much a teacher is paid and whether the teacher receives job protection in the form of tenure.

Over the past two decades, we have learned two important lessons about public school teachers: First, teacher quality varies dramatically, and second, almost nothing we know about a teacher before she enters the classroom accurately predicts how successful she will be.

Now heavily documented through empirical research, these findings should point us toward a fundamental transformation of our system for evaluating public school teachers.

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