Being a Successful Teacher

The non-profit organisation Teach For America has, for two decades, been tracking huge amounts of data on its thousands of teachers and the results they get from their students. By mining the data, testing hypotheses and refining hiring and training practises constantly, the organisation says it is now starting to create a reliable profile of a successful teacher.

For years, Teach for America selected for something called “constant learning.” As [Steven Farr, head of training and support,] and others had noticed, great teachers tended to reflect on their performance and adapt accordingly. So people who tend to be self-aware might be a good bet. […]

But in 2003, the admissions staff looked at the data and discovered that reflectiveness did not seem to matter either. Or more accurately, trying to predict reflectiveness in the hiring process did not work. […]

The results are specific and surprising. Things that you might think would help a new teacher achieve success in a poor school—like prior experience working in a low-income neighborhood—don’t seem to matter. Other things that may sound trifling—like a teacher’s extracurricular accomplishments in college—tend to predict greatness.

Other factors that indicate whether a prospect would likely become an excellent teacher:

  • A modicum of knowledge on a subject (Bachelor’s-level study predicts better results in the classroom, whereas a Master’s in Education has no impact).
  • Constantly re-evaluation.
  • Avid recruitment of students and their families into the process.
  • Ensuring that everything contributes to student learning (maintaining focus).
  • Exhaustive, purposeful planning—for the next day or the year ahead—by working backward from the desired outcome.
  • Relentless work ethic (“refusing to surrender to the combined menaces of poverty, bureaucracy, and budgetary shortfalls”).
  • A track record, rather than just an attitude, of perseverance.
  • The best indicator: a measurable past performance of achievement (GPA and “leadership achievement” specifically).

Update: Cedar Riener points to a short video (3m 44s) created by his colleague, Dan Willingham, on why merit pay based on test scores is a bad idea: “there is not a way to evaluate teachers fairly by using test scores”.



3 responses to “Being a Successful Teacher”

  1. […] would predict, for the purposes of hiring, a great teacher. Here is a good summary of the article: And here is the original: Tags: […]

  2. Hi Lloyd,
    I read this piece, and have been following very closely the latest news and research about teaching, being a college teacher myself, but also for more personal reasons. I went to the DC Public Schools (from K-12th grade). My dad still teaches there. My wife taught there for 3 years. My mom has been involved in DCPS for 20 years. So I have seen first hand a lot of the reforms (both now and in the past) in addition to having a professional interest (being a cognitive psychologist) in the science of learning and education. Not to sound pompous, but since I seem to be one of the very few to comment on this excellent blog of yours, I thought I would add a few personal details.
    There have been a few excellent responses to this in DC teacher blogs, but I think there are two pieces of evidence which quite limit the conclusions that the author wants us to make. First, Teach For America is two years. Two years. I assume some of the teachers stay, but they don’t say whether that is a criteria for excellence. They have an extremely limited window to observe something which is very noisy to begin with.
    Second: Using student test scores to evaluate teachers is a tricky business. Please watch my colleague Dan Willingham’s excellent video on this topic.

    These reformers have convinced every journalist in sight that “hey, good teachers matter” because it makes great copy. But these journalists (nor the public they are supposed to serve) don’t have the statistical and scientific tools to evaluate the claims that TFA people and the reformers like Rhee and Klein are making. Those who do have those tools (like Willingham, or Diane Ravitch, or Deborah Meier, or Linda Darling Hammond) and the sophistication to evaluate these claims and the programs of radical reform come away very skeptical, if not disturbed.

  3. Thanks for the comment and link, Cedar.

    It’s great to hear the other side of these discussions as, like you say, a layman like myself will only hear what people like to write about: what makes good copy. I am putting my trust in the journalists and in others, like you, to keep me informed.

    I now wonder if it is more than a coincidence that I haven’t heard of TFA from other sources; particularly the behavioural economist types who would love to jump on this data-driven research.

    Is this because they realise that assessing teachers on student scores is a false incentive, as Dan Willingham’s video makes clear?

    Thanks again.