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The Best Teachers Have Good Language Skills


Q. Is there a definitive study that shows clearly what makes a teacher effective?


Besides characteristics of a student's parents and home life, teacher quality is the No. 1 influence on student achievement. But according to a major policy report by the National Council on Teacher Quality, research shows that the things most of us THINK are trademarks of a quality teacher, aren't necessarily the ones that matter most.


The study found that teachers with high levels of literacy - big vocabularies, good speaking and writing skills, high test scores - are much more effective than their counterparts who may have more experience, professional development and other seeming advantages.


Teachers who went to more selective colleges also are better in the classroom than those who went to so-so colleges. Also, the best job evaluations go to teachers who are high-achieving, responsible, critical thinkers, organized, motivating, respectful, and loyal to their employers.


These findings signal that it is bad public policy to pay more money to teachers just for earning a master's degree, since the evidence is clear that post-graduate education does not make a teacher more effective, and in fact, can have a slightly negative impact on student achievement.


Another widespread belief is that teaching experience equals quality. This isn't true, after the gains of the first four or five years. It's possible that the best teachers move up the pay scale into school administration positions or other careers, making it look as though teachers get better in the first few years, and then plateau. Bottom line: it is not wise to have stairstep pay scales based on seniority, the way we do.


Here's a whopper: the most effective teachers aren't even necessarily education majors. Teacher prep is nowhere near as important as other factors, including academic caliber, course work across a broad spectrum of disciplines, and the type of content-based experience and course work the teacher has had. The finding suggests that an end to requirements that teachers be graduates of teachers' colleges is on the way.


Another whopper: teacher certification adds "some marginal value," but not enough to justify the costs, including barring many good people from teaching for lack of certification. Answer: alternative certification programs that value nontraditional routes into teaching by capable people.

Homework: Download the report, "Increasing the Odds: How Good Policies Can Yield Better Teachers," as a pdf from, and sign up for that group's free bimonthly e-newsletter, Teacher Quality Bulletin.


By Susan Darst Williams Teachers 03 2008


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