Teach for America identifies what makes good teachers. (Why hasn't U.S. public education?)

Companies expend great effort studying how customers use their products and identifying ways to improve. Further, companies reward employees who improve products and satisfy customers. Shockingly, the American educational system does virtually nothing of the sort. Very little is known about what makes a good teacher. And, in many states, it’s even illegal to tie teacher compensation to student (customer) performance.

So I was thrilled to read this excellent article in The Atlantic asks “What Makes a Great Teacher?” that provides some answers, based on Teach for America research. Teach for America has a tiny fraction of the teachers in the U.S. educational system, yet they constantly mine their database to improve their teacher selection and training process:

[G]reat teachers tended to set big goals for their students. They were also perpetually looking for ways to improve their effectiveness. For example, when Farr called up teachers who were making remarkable gains and asked to visit their classrooms, he noticed he’d get a similar response from all of them: “They’d say, ‘You’re welcome to come, but I have to warn you—I am in the middle of just blowing up my classroom structure and changing my reading workshop because I think it’s not working as well as it could.’ When you hear that over and over, and you don’t hear that from other teachers, you start to form a hypothesis.” Great teachers, he concluded, constantly reevaluate what they are doing.

Superstar teachers had four other tendencies in common: they avidly recruited students and their families into the process; they maintained focus, ensuring that everything they did contributed to student learning; they planned exhaustively and purposefully—for the next day or the year ahead—by working backward from the desired outcome; and they worked relentlessly, refusing to surrender to the combined menaces of poverty, bureaucracy, and budgetary shortfalls…

Mr. Taylor follows a very basic lesson plan often referred to by educators as “I do, we do, you do.” He does a problem on the board. Then the whole class does another one the same way. Then all the kids do a problem on their own…

Those who initially scored high for “grit”—defined as perseverance and a passion for long-term goals, and measured using a short multiple-choice test—were 31 percent more likely than their less gritty peers to spur academic growth in their students. Gritty people, the theory goes, work harder and stay committed to their goals longer…

Teachers who scored high in “life satisfaction”—reporting that they were very content with their lives—were 43 percent more likely to perform well in the classroom than their less satisfied colleagues. These teachers “may be more adept at engaging their pupils, and their zest and enthusiasm may spread to their students,” the study suggested.

…[A] master’s degree in education seems to have no impact on classroom effectiveness.

Posted by James on Sunday, February 07, 2010