Identifying Effective Teachers Using Performance on the Job

Robert Gordon, Thomas J. Kane, and Douglas O. Staiger
The Hamilton Project, Brookings Institution
April 2006

This paper makes the case for improving teacher quality by basing tenure and bonus-pay on student achievement while lowering barriers for certification and, thus, entry into the profession. We've heard these ideas before, but rarely from prominent Democrats; Robert Gordon is former policy director for the Kerry/Edwards campaign and currently with the Center for American Progress. And rarely have these ideas been presented so simply and with such sturdy logic and explanations. Everyone should read the material covering the authors' second of five recommendations-"Make it harder to promote the least effective teachers to tenured positions"-in which they propose denying tenure to teachers who are ineffective during their first two years. The report suggests that administrators evaluate student achievement data, and supplement that data with subjective factors such as classroom observation, to weed-out the bottom quartile of new teachers. But wouldn't other inexperienced teachers then take their place, and wouldn't quality suffer? No, say the authors. While more new teachers would certainly be needed, the net effect on teacher quality would be overwhelmingly positive. And although it's possible for struggling new instructors to develop into good teachers, these data show that teacher performance in the first two years is a good predictor of future success or failure; the worst new teachers generally become the worst veteran teachers. Wouldn't eliminating certification requirements to expand the pool of new teachers lower quality? No, again. Research shows trivial differences in performance between certified and uncertified teachers-differences dwarfed by the benefits of weeding out the worst performers from a larger pool. This report's recommendations-backed by lots of hard data-are so solid that resistance to them can only stem from unwillingness to change or, inevitably, from political allegiances. (See, for example, the current imbroglio over a modest performance-pay plan in Florida.) This paper delves into performance pay, too, and it suggests large bonuses for effective teachers willing to work in the worst schools. And while more details need fleshing out, the report admirably considers the challenges of data collection, of controlling for student characteristics, and of applying its ideas to all grades and subjects. Its thirty-five efficient pages are well-worth your time, and well-worth serious consideration in school systems everywhere. Find a copy online here.

Eric Osberg is a Vice President and Treasurer at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute