Sunday, August 22, 2004

Best teachers need more than apples

By Jane Hannaway
Guest columnist

Public education is a complicated business. Nowhere else are the hopes so high, the stakes so significant, the resources so diffused, and the results so dissatisfying.

This educational witches' brew boils over in America's cities, including Cincinnati, where too many students must contend outside the classroom with the brutal facts of poverty and distressed neighborhoods. More than six out of 10 students in Cincinnati qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Many in Cincinnati schools don't have the books, computers and educated parents their suburban counterparts enjoy. What this means is that schools in Cincinnati and other cities need to be better for their students to succeed ... but most aren't.

We certainly don't have all the answers about what works in education, but we know teachers make a difference.

Indeed, teacher quality is arguably the most important in-school influence on student achievement. And, perhaps not surprisingly, teacher quality makes the most difference for students from disadvantaged families.

Educational professionals and researchers alike also know that teachers vary greatly in their effectiveness. So isn't it surprising - and unacceptable - that teachers in schools serving the most disadvantaged students are typically the least experienced and least qualified?

I am not the first to note that education is one of the few industries, perhaps the only one, where the weakest personnel are often assigned to the most challenging and most complicated jobs. Yes, all teaching jobs are challenging and complicated, but teaching disadvantaged students is particularly tough.

What can we do about it? The answer is, a lot. But we first have to recognize the misallocation of staff within school districts. Teacher assignment issues are politically sensitive, so just accepting the problem as a real public policy imperative is a big step.

That said, the solutions aren't simple. However easy to measure objectively, such factors as amount of training and years of experience do not necessarily translate into more effective teaching. For example, teachers who are more academically proficient, as indicated by scores on tests of verbal ability, are generally more effective. But it takes more than high test scores to be a successful teacher. While we are unable to specify beforehand what will make a particular teacher a standout in the classroom, we do know that some educators produce consistently higher student performance than others.

Everyone concerned about Cincinnati students needs to make two commitments. One is finding a reliable way to identify effective teachers, perhaps by using past performance as measured by gains in student achievement. The second commitment is giving these professionals incentives to teach in the most hard-pressed schools. Why not give them enough recognition and pay for their achievements to attract them to schools where they can make the biggest difference?

Why not indeed, especially when so much is on the line and so much more can be done to fill young lives with hope, substance and opportunity?

Jane Hannaway directs the Education Policy Center at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C.

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