Malcolm Gladwell has a good piece in the current New Yorker about how hard it is to figure out what makes great teachers great.
This will always be an important factor for education systems, until, of course, there is enough money to pay teachers a highly compensated professional salary on par with their required training and certifications to perform their job. It’s not just recognizing who are the great effective teachers, part of it is getting people to want to be teachers. To make the profession a desirable one.
Until you begin to pay them like the best and the brightest you won’t necessarily attract the best and brightest to teach in public schools. That’s of course not to say teachers aren’t the best and brightest.
I’ve had the pleasure of working with some great teachers and as a student there are a handful that have shaped my intellectual curiosity – my mom being one of them. Like many fields, great teachers have “it.” They’re engaging and guiding. Patient and rock solid. Unflappable. Loving, caring, and full of heart. They are a strange combination of loving parent, guiding muse, and confidence booster.
Eric Hanushek, an economist at Stanford, estimates that the students of a very bad teacher will learn, on average, half a year’s worth of material in one school year. The students in the class of a very good teacher will learn a year and a half’s worth of material. That difference amounts to a year’s worth of learning in a single year. Teacher effects dwarf school effects: your child is actually better off in a “bad” school with an excellent teacher than in an excellent school with a bad teacher. Teacher effects are also much stronger than class-size effects. You’d have to cut the average class almost in half to get the same boost that you’d get if you switched from an average teacher to a teacher in the eighty-fifth percentile. And remember that a good teacher costs as much as an average one, whereas halving class size would require that you build twice as many classrooms and hire twice as many teachers.
Hanushek recently did a back-of-the-envelope calculation about what even a rudimentary focus on teacher quality could mean for the United States. If you rank the countries of the world in terms of the academic performance of their schoolchildren, the U.S. is just below average, half a standard deviation below a clump of relatively high-performing countries like Canada and Belgium. According to Hanushek, the U.S. could close that gap simply by replacing the bottom six per cent to ten per cent of public-school teachers with teachers of average quality. After years of worrying about issues like school funding levels, class size, and curriculum design, many reformers have come to the conclusion that nothing matters more than finding people with the potential to be great teachers. But there’s a hitch: no one knows what a person with the potential to be a great teacher looks like.
So there you go. Interesting read.