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Teach Your Teachers Well

Of the (very) many large topics on the Obama administration’s to-do list, one that has slipped off the radar of late is education reform. I assume Arne Duncan et al. are working hard and will retake the spotlight eventually, maybe even in a few weeks when a new school year begins. It will be interesting to see how much attention is paid to one of the most important, albeit touchiest, topics of school reform: teacher skill.
We will touch on the subject in SuperFreakonomics, but here’s a new paper (pdf; abstract) by C. Kirabo Jackson and Elias Bruegmann* that looks at it from an unusual angle: whether a teacher’s success, when measured by students’ test scores, improves when that teacher gets better colleagues in her own school. Their answer: a firm yes.
From the abstract:

Using longitudinal elementary school teacher and student data, we document that students have larger test score gains when their teachers experience improvements in the observable characteristics of their colleagues. Using within-school and within-teacher variation, we further show that a teacher’s students have larger achievement gains in math and reading when she has more effective colleagues (based on estimated value added from an out-of-sample pre-period). Spillovers are strongest for less-experienced teachers and persist over time, and historical peer quality explains away about 20 percent of the own-teacher effect, results that suggest peer learning.

We know that peer effects are strong for students, so perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that they are strong for teachers as well. But I am guessing this finding is a surprise even to a lot of people within education, and I hope this paper will be read by the people who take school reform seriously.
*For those of you concerned with the alphabetical determinism faced by academic co-authors, consider this interesting footnote in Jackson and Bruegmann’s paper: “Note: In the interest of fairness, the ordering of the authors’ names was determined by a coin flip.”