Quantifying Teacher Effectiveness

Teach for America (TFA) is known for putting recent college graduates in low-income public schools for two-year teaching stints, a mission that has produced a lot of passionate debate. The organization’s founders hope that these young teachers will eventually become education leaders and advocates — and many of them have. TFA has another, less well-known mission. Amanda Ripley reports that over the past 20 years, TFA has tracked the performance of 85 percent to 90 percent of its students and in the process learned a lot about what makes a great teacher. Great teachers share some key characteristics: they set big goals for their students, constantly seek to improve their own effectiveness, actively involve students and their families, stay focused, plan extensively by working backwards from their desired outcome, and work relentlessly. The research comes as Education Secretary Arne Duncan initiates a series of programs aimed at improving teacher quality. As one expert told Ripley: “This is the big bang of teacher-effectiveness reform. It’s huge.” [%comments]


So in other words, the good teachers are the ones who care about their jobs, do the hard work, and also work at improving. At that level, it doesn't appear too different from many other jobs.


TFA is relentless in tracking their teachers abilities. My fiance was in TFA for the last 2 years and it seemed like the organization had metrics for everything that could happen in a classroom.


And yet...we still provide zero financial incentive for these great teachers to perform at such a level, or to incent "pretty good" teachers to become "great" teachers.

Financially, I'd argue there is actually disincentive for teachers to perform at a high level (when their sub-par peers receive equal pay assuming equal tenure). This makes those who do what it takes to be great teachers that much greater in my mind.


I completed a TFA program and never heard from them again once I found a job. I was pleased with the training, but I certainly wouldn't call TFA relentless.


Could the Hawthorne effect come into play here?


Maybe if we could eliminate the teachers who join the profession for the great fringe benefits (you know summers off etc.), we could attract people who actually want to teach for the sake of teaching.


My girlfriend looked at Teach for America, and ultimately joined a related program called Oakland Teaching Fellows. 2 years later she came away with the impression that both programs are very bad ideas - as a teacher thrown into the classroom with very little preparation and mentoring she felt that she routinely let her students down because she simply wasn't shown how to do better, and being overstressed from completing her credential (effectively being a full time student *and* a full time teacher) at the same time only made her less effective.

Now completing an education degree, she has come to the conclusion that these short cuts for aspiring teachers to make it into the classroom are not worth it for the teacher, and are even detrimental to the mission that they espouse. It's better to take the extra year to make sure that you are ready for the classroom when it's your time.


I agree with BMF. If you're putting in 60-70 hour work weeks to make $32,000 a year to start with no way to earn more through effectiveness, how motivated are teachers going to be to perform. Through in tenure in some places and shortages in others and the tables are set for poor teacher performance. Most willing to put that time and effort into their craft have chosen fields with higher financial returns. Simple incentives. And making the issue more problematic is the public conception that teacher's should be atruistic and want the job for its role in society and pay should be secondary.


@3: That notion of incentivizing all performance with financial rewards often backfires, reducing productivity.

There was a great "Talk of the Nation" segment on NPR recently, with Daniel Pink. His book, "Drive", discusses this.



PINK: ... We respond - as human beings, we respond exquisitely to rewards and punishments in our environment. Typically, if you reward something, you get more of it. You punish something, you get less of it. And our businesses have been built for the last 150 years very much on that kind of motivational scheme.

CONAN: Yet, you say this is, in fact, a theory that holds that work is something to be - well, despised, loathed, something you wouldn't do unless you either get rewarded for doing it or punished for not doing it.

Mr. PINK: ... I looked at 40 years of science, 40 years of research into human motivation. And what it says, over and over again, is that these carrots and sticks, they absolutely work, but in a surprisingly narrow band of circumstances. And particularly for creative tasks, for conceptual tasks, they don't work very well.


Megan W.

I just hope we can figure out a way to measure the differences between the students that are input into the (teacher-measuring) system.

Some years, I get ninth grade science students who can do algebra, some years I don't. (It depends on what math sections I teach opposite). Should their improvement over baseline be measured? Or should their performance on a given final exam be measured? It makes a difference to my evaluation.

I would hate to have my financial incentive be based off the latter in a year that I had weak students.

Should the special-ed teacher meet the same goals as the regular classroom teacher? What about the honors teacher?


As a Teach For America alum, I can tell you that this level of quantification is a double-edged sword. On the plus side, it helps to pare away all the inane details of life as a teacher ("Is the bulletin board outside your room up to date?" or "Are the students using the new calculators from the DOE?") by which triviality notwithstanding, you are assessed repeatedly. In their place, unsurprisingly, are broad themes for any classroom instead of specific practices: big goals, consistent feedback, family engagement, thoughtful planning - and the willingness to abandon even the most thoughtful plan when it doesn't work.

The downside is that in the hunt to find what works, no stone has been left unturned. There was something distinctly dismaying about being asked to quantify my own happiness during one of the most trying times of my life. My training in physics has me suspicious that observation affects that which is observed.

An obsession with quantification drove the rise of standardized testing in the first place. In the struggle for teachers to raise the test scores of their students, real, long-term learning experiences happen as a byproduct of preparing to meet exam standards. For me, this cheapened the experience of being a teacher. I am, however, still working in education; I spend my days developing better tools through which kids can learn - with the hopeful byproduct of increased test scores.

To Caleb's comment - You're absolutely right, but there are two mitigating factors:
1. In the wider world, there are incentives (monetary) and disincentives (pink slip) to encourage these traits in working professionals. Teaching is no different from any other profession in this regard: In the absence of incentives to improve, quality suffers. An option to give up tenure in exchange for test-based pay bonuses will tell you who the good teachers are real quick.
2. The biggest way in which teaching is different as a profession: The stakes! Can we, as a nation, afford to hold teaching professionals to merely an equal standard with other professions (as opposed to the lower standards we currently have)? Slackers in every workplace get carried along, but slacker teachers sap the human capital of the next generation!



I'm with Jo about the ridiculous societal expectation that teachers should work for the love of teaching and not care about pay. In a profession where (at least where I work) there is no system in place for overtime, I am constantly pressured to work with students after my work hours have ended. On a good week I spend almost 10 unpaid hours at work and about as many at home planning and grading. Looking at my regular wage, I'm doing over $24k worth of unpaid work for my school system every year. How many other professions routinely expect employees to work extra hours without being paid? Even the custodians in my district get time and a half for working extra hours.

Robert Sharpe

As a teacher that has taught in both public and, presently, private schools I can see the lack of incentives a problem in public schools. At my school we can earn an annual professional bonus if we complete a certain amount of continual education credits along with other professional endeavors.

It's nice for the school to offer financial incentives, instead of simply an altruistic incentive, to keep us pursuing our craft.


@ #9 I have to respectfully disagree with you here, though. I haven't read the entire link you posted (although I do intend to), but I have a hard time being convinced that increasing compensation for teachers, paying teachers on the same experience level differing amounts based on performance (i.e. better teachers get paid more, much like in the private sector - even paying less experienced, better performing teachers more than tenured, bad teachers), and demoting or terminating underperforming teachers would do anything but serve to increase the talent level of educators collectively as well as bring in new, young, creative talent. Yes, evaluation of teaching performance is arbitrary, but isn't the evaluation that (presumably) each of us receive.

Being married to a public school teacher (who altruistically continues to disagree with me on this, by the way), I can't understand why society continues to put up with neglectful teacher employment practices by the state, while continuing to come up with new ways to "fix" public education and "monitor" and "assess" teacher quality with metrics such as test scores or promotion rates which does little more that incent teachers to teach to the test, and practice "social promotion" of under prepared children. I just can't imagine altruism can't be mutually exclusive from compensation.



KM -

It's not so much a social expectation that teachers shouldn't care about money, it's a social confusion as to why teachers seem to complain so much about how "little" they earn. There's not a month that goes by that I don't hear one of my teacher friends either complain about how little they make or make a comment about how they can't afford something because, you know, they're a teacher.

At the high school I went to, classes went from 8:59 am to 3:17 pm. That's 7 hours. That's not to mention that teachers get a planning period and a lunch hour. Take into account a passing period of 7 minutes between classes, that's 4.5 hours of teaching per day. Then if you take into account winter break, spring break, federal holidays, and summer vacation, they're earning $45,000 as first year teachers while working 3/4 as much of the year as industry. Sounds like a pretty sweet deal.


An instructive passage from that linked interview addresses the concern over not being compensated fairly, which is a nuanced problem:


CONAN: ... And Daniel Pink, we should make a caveat here. You say there is a basis. First of all, the standard remuneration has to be fair and standard industry. You begin with that.

Mr. PINK: Absolutely. I mean, money does matter. If you're not - if people are being paid unfairly, if they feel like they're being treated poorly, if they're not - if they don't have enough money to support their family, you're not going to have motivation. You're not going to have this third, intrinsic drive. So you've got to pay people enough.

But in many ways, money works more as a - past a certain level, money works more as a de-motivator than as a motivator. And in many ways, again, it's very counterintuitive. The science shows that the best way to use money is to take the issue of money off the people. Pay people enough so that money isn't an issue, and they can focus on doing great work.


In essence, "pay people enough that they don't have to worry about it, and they'll do better work." The problem, naturally, is figuring out what "enough" is. ;)



to teachers who are always noting their dedication and overtime and constant constant work:

I would suggest that maybe you have poorer administrative and organizational skills than other professions like engineers and mathematicians. Also, I would suggest that you don't know how to stop being teachers. i have always respected teachers, but I have come to realize that some of them never, ever, ever want to stop being teachers, not even outside of schools. They have their teacher personality on at all times. In other words they do not have another personal self other than teacher. It' okay and welcome when I was a kid or even when I was older and had kids. But after I was done being a kid, and done making growing them upwards, this teacher personality gets very very pervasive.

so maybe you just need to try being an annoying bum or something, and you might find out how to be a more efficient teacher.



KM while I tend to agree with your's and Jo's message that pay is important. I am just struggling with your arguement as a basis of comparison to the pay structure of other 'profiessions' and overtime pay. First, I would consider custodian a 'job', and not necessarily a profession. For jobs individuals are paid on the basis of inputs (hours of labor). In most professions people are compensated & incentivized based on their output. It's up to the professional to become more efficient in their inputs, such as number of hours of effort, to increase the profitablity of the reward they receive for their outputs. To this end, most professionals are required to work whatever hours it takes...so yes 'uncompensated' hours & overtime are expected.

Now where I agree, most professionals to see incentive in terms of bonuses, commissions, revenue to produce favorable outcoomes. And I agree that the typical educator's pay does not provide this incentive.




The thought that a planning period and lunch period represent a 'break' in the day, and that 7 hrs is the standard teacher work load, is misguided at best.

As a teacher to inner city youth in a charter school, I spend somewhere between 2 to 4 hours out of class planning for every single school day. Quality instruction comes at the cost of time. Then, add grading and the multitude of duties that accompany teaching, and your time sum starts growing.

If I were to understand business the way you do teaching, counting only the time that employees are actively presenting a product or making a sale, the business world would work few hours indeed. Perhaps even less hours than teachers.

Sci Guy


I'm a science teacher and Teach For America corps member in North Carolina. The actual act of teaching, of supervising a classroom, is not the only responsibility a teacher has. Saying that teachers have a sweet deal because they are only teaching for 4.5 hours a day is like saying astronauts have a sweet deal because they are only in space for short periods of time.
Teachers plan during their planning period. They grade papers, fill out paperwork, and plan at home, usually several hours a day. Passing time is used to set up for the next class. I know several teachers who call parents during their lunch break. They also spend time during the various breaks planning for the upcoming school year or semester. When you add up the time spent on school outside of school, the deal doesn't look so sweet.
The sentiment you expressed is a common one, and I think it stems from the view the students have of their teachers when they were in school. Most teachers don't show up five minutes before the bell and leave five minutes after like the students are able to do. Many people don't realize the type of planning and preparation needed to run an effective classroom.