A new study on the effect of teacher quality in the classroom was highlighted in this past Sunday's Chicago Tribune (Metro section). It was a comprehensive study that supports anecdotal evidence from teachers, administrators and parents that has been around for years, and shows conclusively how important it is to have high quality teachers in the classroom, particularly for poor and minority students. Schools from Ohio, Illinois and Wisconsin were evaluated at all grade levels, and teacher quality proved to be most important in the high schools.
My first question on any study like this is how is 'high teacher quality' defined. In this study, five factors were included in the definition: average college entrance exam score of all the teachers in a school, results on the teacher licensing test of basic skills in a particular state, a national ranking of college attended by the teachers, years of experience, and number of teachers with provisional credentials. I'm not convinced that college entrance exam scores are always a good indicator (I've seen former students who scored lower than they wanted, but then blossom in college and beyond, for instance), as well as national rankings of colleges attended (I know some outstanding personnel from smaller, 'no-name' colleges), but this is what they went with.
Results for poor Illinois schools (50-89% poverty rates):
For elementary and middle schools, students who have teachers of:
High quality 56.4% pass state test (ISAT)
Middle-high quality 53.6% pass
Middle-low quality 53.2% pass
Lowest 10 percent 43.8% pass
For poor high schools:
High quality No low-income high schools in this category had high-quality teachers
Middle-high quality 32.5% passed state test (PSAE)
Middle-low quality 27.0% passed
Lowest 10 percent 13.7% passed
This is a large discrepancy for the high schools, where subject matter is more advanced and more important, and teachers who are energized and competent are vital. Poor schools tend to have the largest minority populations (and are located in cities), and the fact they typically pay less and have worse conditions for teaching than wealthier suburban districts leads to those schools further demise. The kids are the ones who pay in the end, and do not get the same education that their peers in wealthier districts receive. Although this has always been 'known' by those of us who have taught in both types of districts (in my case Chicago public high school as well as a wealthier district in the North Shore region above Chicago), it is good to see those gut reactions supported by the data. Hopefully studies such as these will spur on continued policy debates regarding education and how to help those schools that truly need reform.