How teachers affect students' attitudes and behavior

A new recent study conducted by David Blazer of the University of Maryland examines whether teachers affect student outcomes other than test scores, including students’ self-reported behavior and happiness in class and self-efficacy in math. The study collects data from fourth and fifth grade teachers in four anonymous school districts in three states on the East Coast across three school years (2010–11 to 2012–13).

The analysis focuses on a subset of forty-one teachers who were part of a random assignment study in year three and a group of students (and their teachers) who completed a survey about their attitudes and behaviors during all three years. Analysts had access to student demographic and achievement data, teacher value-added data, and student survey data on three constructs, behavior in class (e.g., “My behavior in this class sometimes annoys the teacher”), self-efficacy in math (e.g., “In this class, math is too hard”), and happiness in class (e.g., “I enjoy math class this year”). Regarding the causal nature of the study, in the spring of 2012, fourth and fifth grade teachers were randomly assigned to class rosters of the same grade level; participants were generalists who taught all subject areas such that their contribution to student outcomes would not be confounded with the effect of another teacher.

The findings can be boiled down to two key results. First, teachers substantially affected all three self-reported measures of student attitudes and behaviors. The largest of these effects was on students’ happiness in class, for which a 1.00 standard deviation (SD) increase in teacher effectiveness led to a roughly 0.30 SD increase in that outcome. Further, the magnitude of teacher effects on behavior in class and self-efficacy in math was generally larger than teacher effects on students’ math performance but, again, smaller than teachers’ effect on student happiness.

Second, in a different model, there’s a small but negative relationship between teacher effects on students’ math performance and teacher effects on happiness in class. Blazar suggests that “teachers who are skilled at boosting math achievement may do so in ways that make students less happy or less engaged in class.” That’s not terribly surprising considering we’ve all taken a class that taught us a lot but wasn’t the most exciting or enjoyable learning experience in the world (Mr. Vanorden’s tenth grade Geometry class comes to mind).

The study ends with a warning that student survey data on non-cognitive outcomes like these are not appropriate for official accountability systems but can certainly inform areas where teachers might need additional training or professional development. In the end, the report contributes to our knowledge of how to gather and make sense of richer measures of student outcomes like attitudes, behaviors, and engagement, in addition to test scores. It seems like the entire field is echoing the need for such measures—and thankfully we’re making some headway.

SOURCE: David Blazar, “Validating Teacher Effects on Students' Attitudes and Behaviors: Evidence From Random Assignment of Teachers to Students,” Education Finance and Policy (October 2017).

Amber M. Northern, Ph.D.
Amber M. Northern, Ph.D. is the Senior Vice President for Research at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.