Teacher Quality: Making the Grade


By Lisa Stein

When Michelle Reininger started teaching chemistry at a private high school a few years after graduating from college, one aspect of her new job made a big impact on her. The school where she taught was markedly better than the one she had attended. It had a more advanced curriculum, better educational tools, and most striking of all, teachers of a higher caliber than she had previously encountered.

"It was such a stark contrast," recalls Reininger, who joined SESP's faculty as assistant professor of education policy in September. "I went to a public school that paled in comparison. After I saw the difference, I got very interested in the fundamental questions of education, in particular the quality of teachers. I'm interested in how teachers can play a role in decreasing the inequities that exist both within and across schools."

One way assistant professor Michelle Reininger, a former high school chemistry teacher, stays involved with high school students is by tutoring. Here she coaches Nora Coyne, Paul Rudolph, Ben Rudolph, Greg Colligan and Mary Coyne in chemistry. PHOTOS BY DAVID BACON
One way assistant professor Michelle Reininger, a former high school chemistry teacher, stays involved with high school students is by tutoring. Here she coaches Nora Coyne, Paul Rudolph, Ben Rudolph, Greg Colligan and Mary Coyne in chemistry.
PHOTOS BY DAVID BACON

Unfortunately, it is often our country's least-skilled teachers who teach vulnerable children, especially students of color who live in impoverished areas and those who don't do well in school. The big difference in teacher quality is thought to be a major factor in the large gaps in academic achievement among students of different socioeconomic status and racial and ethnic groups. For example, a recent study done by the Illinois Education *Research Council showed that teacher quality — measured by ACT scores, selectivity of undergraduate college attended and years of experience — in schools with a high percentage of minority students living in poverty was demonstrably lower than in schools with low percentages of those students. And poorly qualified teachers have been shown to reduce student achievement for years to come.

Reininger is part of the large-scale Pathways Study researching how teacher preparation programs affect teacher quality. Her goal is to influence policies that will decrease inequities adn raise standards.
Reininger is part of the large-scale Pathways Study researching how teacher preparation programs affect teacher quality. Her goal is to influence policies that will decrease inequities and raise standards.
Wanting to affect change at a policy level, Reininger eventually left teaching and went on to earn a PhD in education policy from Stanford University. While at Stanford she took part in a large, ongoing study that looks at how the characteristics of teacher preparation programs affect the supply, retention and effectiveness of K-12 teachers in economically disadvantaged urban schools and the achievement of the students they serve. Reininger will continue her work on the study as she starts her new job at SESP.

"There's a push right now to identify what makes a good teacher, and one of the ways to do that is to look at the types of teacher preparation they receive," Reininger says.

The Pathways Study, as it is called, is an ambitious, multimillion-dollar research project and one of the first ongoing longitudinal studies of teacher preparation. The study has its roots in a 2003 decision by New York City educators. Eager to fill a critical shortage of certified teachers, particularly in math, science and special education, the city created a subsidized master's degree program that provides a route of entry into teaching for individuals who already have bachelor's degrees. This program allows selected individuals to begin teaching full-time while undergoing their preparation.

The problem is that there has been little research into the relative merits of various teaching pathways, and the New Yorkers wanted some baseline data. So over the last four years researchers from Stanford and the State University of New York at Albany have examined the largest preparation programs for teaching candidates in New York City, and how those diverse pathways ultimately affect student learning and achievement. The programs being studied range from traditional, university programs to alternative routes such as Teach for America and the New York City Teaching Fellows Program.

"We are looking at who enters the different programs," Reininger explains, "and trying to identify various attributes of pathways that may have an impact on student achievement, such as types and amounts of required coursework. We are not concerned with identifying which program is better than another, but instead whether or not we can identify characteristics that appear to be important for various educational outcomes. Not a lot is known about what makes a good teacher. But we know one thing — we need a better understanding of the preparation our teachers are receiving."

Mariah Taylor, a student in SESP's Master of Science in Education Program, hones her teaching skills in a summer math class offered by the Center for Talent Development. PHOTOS BY JERRY LAI
Mariah Taylor, a student in SESP's Master of Science in Education Program, hones her teaching skills in a summer math class offered by the Center for Talent Development.
PHOTO BY JERRY LAI

Reininger says that although the study is far from over, some patterns are emerging from the enormous amount of data generated so far. The first is that alternative teacher training programs have increased the supply of teachers and attracted people who wouldn't have otherwise thought of becoming teachers. Those people often have stronger measures of qualifications, such as standardized test scores and selectivity of undergraduate institutions, than their traditional-route counterparts.

But that's not to say alternative pathways are for everybody. "One thing I believe is that we need a variety of programs," Reininger says. "No single preparation is going to work for all teachers."

Pathways researchers are also uncovering some interesting attributes of teachers as a group. Most teachers want to work in schools that are located close to the schools that they attended. In fact, 85 percent of New York State teachers teach within 40 miles of where they went to school. Another finding suggests that teachers' biggest learning gains occur between the first and fifth years on the job, and that many teachers in underprivileged schools quit after the third year, which also contributes to the achievement gap.

Although it is generally accepted that having good teachers is important, defining exactly what makes somebody a good teacher has been elusive for all researchers. Spyros Konstantopoulos, assistant professor of human development and social policy, and learning sciences, completed a study with professor Larry Hedges in fall 2004 confirming that teachers matter a great deal for student learning, so much so that which teacher a student gets within a school matters more than which school the student attends, and probably even more than class size.

"Important teacher characteristics, such as skill, motivation, knowledge, and commitment to teaching are not easy to quantify," Konstantopoulos says. "But we know we need higher-quality training."

Teaching is a brain-to-brain contact sport," asserts David Weinberg. He is a trustee of Northwestern University and a member of the civic committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago, an organization comprising business, professional, educational, and cultural leaders that has worked on school reform for more than twenty years. "An educational environment that puts good teachers in front of a reasonable number of students, with enough time to cover the material, is a major determinant of student success."

The Making of a Teacher

The Pathways Study is co-directed by Don Boyd, Hamilton Lankford, Susanna Loeb, Jim Wyckoff and Pamela Grossman, author of The Making of a Teacher.
Chicago's charter schools, which are independently managed public schools to which students throughout the city may apply, provide such an environment, Weinberg suggests. He argues that establishing more charter schools is the best way to provide access to that environment for more of Chicago's most economically disadvantaged students. "The charters are oversubscribed because many parents know that they are generally better than most of the older public schools. Fostering such competition also is the best way to motivate those older schools to improve their performance, including the quality of teachers recruited and retained."

Tangled in the complicated issue of teacher quality is race. According to Jelani Mandara, assistant professor of human development and social policy, "The economic situations of many African-Americans and Latinos does not always allow them the financial freedom to pursue teaching as a career, as many white females can. Many African-Americans and Latinos, males and females, who have the same educational levels as white teachers often become lawyers or enter other well-paying professions that they might not like as much. The teachers that are left in most of the inner-city schools aren't necessarily the most qualified overall."

So how can we improve teacher quality? Reininger says that along with identifying what makes for good preparation programs, schools need to do their part to attract and retain quality teachers. That depends on giving them what they have said repeatedly in surveys is most important to them: a decent salary, pleasant and safe working conditions, and effective school leadership and resources.

Meeting those needs, as well as continuing systematic research such as the Pathways study, Reininger says, will give U.S. schools the best chance for raising educational standards and eliminating the achievement gap. "We're trying to discover what makes a teacher effective. It's a hard thing to isolate. But everyone agrees it's worth pursuing."

Alumnus Works To Help Teachers Rise

By Lisa Stein

The key to closing the achievement gap for our country's most disadvantaged students lies in providing them with effective, experienced teachers.

That's the belief of RISE (Resources for Indispensable Schools and Educators), a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization that has a unique approach toward supporting teachers in economically underprivileged schools. RISE targets K-12 teachers with two to five years of experience whose students are showing significant academic gains. RISE gives them free resources, including financial incentives, career opportunities and contact with like-minded professionals.

"As many as 70 percent of new teachers in low-income communities leave within five years, and effective teachers are the first to leave," says Michael Costa (MS02), a program associate with RISE and a graduate of SESP's alternative certification program, NU-TEACH, a collaboration with the Inner-City Teaching Corps, Golden Apple Foundation and Chicago Public Schools. "We want to make their work more sustainable and help them continue to teach in areas of high need."

RISE uses what it calls a "value-added assessment" in deciding which teachers to allow in the network. "We monitor the effectiveness of a teacher based on how much they've contributed to students' learning during the year they've had them. Let's say a student comes to a fifth-grade classroom reading at third-grade level, and by the end of the year he's reading at fifth-grade level. Even though technically he's still behind, he's made big improvements," Costa says.

Today RISE works with about 800 teachers across the nation and has 70 partner schools in the San Francisco Bay area, Chicago and Los Angeles. A new Chicago office will open in 2007.

MikeCosta and DebraJohnson
By Lisa Stein