We Can Get Better Teachers

Commentary, Education, Rodney Clifton

Children have just begun school, and their parents are praying – and paying – for good teachers.

Unfortunately, some parents are probably already disappointed.

If parents and taxpayers want to know what the best research literature says about effective teachers and how to obtain them, they must read Teachers Matter: Rethinking How Public Schools Identify, Reward, and Retain Great Educators by Marcus Winters, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institution and an assistant professor at the University of Colorado.

In straightforward language, Winters describes the way teachers are educated, hired, and paid, and provides insightful analyses on how these factors influence teacher performance and student learning.

Most importantly, he demonstrates that teacher quality has a substantial impact on student learning. In other words, there is clear evidence that teacher quality matters, and that students learn much more under the tutelage of good teachers than under bad ones. The top 25 per cent of teachers are, on average, able to impart a year and a half’s worth of material to their students in one school year. On the other hands, teachers in the bottom 25 per cent are only able to impart half a year of material to their students. Taken together, these two statistics suggest that students with good teachers learn, on average, about three times as much material in a given school year than students stuck with bad teachers.

Equally importantly, he notes that of all the factors directly controlled by school divisions that influence student learning teacher quality is the most significant factor. Good teachers provide students with opportunities to have fulfilling lives, particularly students from low-income families who only have this one legitimate way out of their social situations. 

Winters is highly critical of the way public school teachers are paid.  Salaries for most public school teachers in North America are based on the amount of university education they have obtained and the number of years of teaching experience they hold.

However, Winters demonstrates that these are not the best criteria on which to base teacher salaries. He reviews the recent research literature on the subject, and shows that the amount of education teachers have, above a bachelor’s degree, has virtually no effect on the achievement of their students. Neither does the number of years that a teacher has spent in the classroom.   

Winters asks why, then, do divisions continue to pay teachers higher salaries for taking more university courses and for their teaching experiences up to about 10 years?

He asks another important question: Why do school divisions give tenure to teachers before they can assess their teaching effectiveness?  In Manitoba, for example, teachers receive tenure as soon as they are hired on permanent contracts. 

Winters also points out that firing tenured teachers is almost impossible, which makes it exceedingly difficult to hold bad teachers responsible when their students don’t learn. Consequently, Winters argues that the system of teacher tenure should be unacceptable to parents and taxpayers.

Winters then goes on to  describe a number of possible solutions. He sketches out an alternative system of hiring, evaluating, and paying teachers based on their students’ learning. This system, called value-added assessment, measures the performances of students at the beginning of the year and then again at the end of the year. Winters proposes that effective teachers, those who get the greatest achievement gains, should be retained and paid well while ineffective teachers should be helped to get other jobs.

Principals, superintendents, ministers of education and all citizens who are concerned about improving the education of children should read this book. In Teachers Matter, Marcus Winters has outlined an effective way of getting and keeping excellent teachers–by rewarding them for the outstanding performances of their students.