A recent editorial by the Washington Post’s, Fred Hiatt, outlined Bill Gates school repair plan.  The Gates Foundation has already spent $4 billion on education reform and has learned a thing or two.  Now, the foundation’s two main goals in education funding are promoting charter school-type initiatives, such as KIPP, and improving teacher quality. 


Recent studies overwhelming point to the fact that students with better teachers learn more.  What does a “better” teacher do?  For one, she doesn’t need to be an expert in her subject area(s).  Up through about 10th grade, knowledge of subject material isn’t that critical to student success.  What matters is the more subtle classroom management strategies.  The most successful teachers have great classroom “awareness.”  They open lessons quickly, get kids engaged, know early on which students “get” the material and which need more coaching, incorporate the students into the learning conversation and are able to bend the academic interaction, so that even “wrong” answers are transformed and produce learning value. 


Can these skills be taught?  Not sure.  All teachers spend four years in undergraduate studies including student teaching.  In theory, this would be the time for some prospective teachers to be “redirected” into other fields with only the most capable moving on.  Of course, this doesn’t happen.  If you pass your classes, you become a certified teacher.  Is this the only profession where you have a “knack” for it or you don’t?  In other words, can you “learn” good teaching?


One hopeful statistic comes from the National Teacher Board Certification program.  This program confers the most senior credential in the teaching profession.  (Over 60% board certification candidates fail their first attempt.)  Once attained, however, students taught by board certified teachers enjoy a 7-14% learning gain. 


All this recent attention on quality of teaching being the true key to student learning is anathema to teachers unions.  They would like to preserve the status quo of more pay for more seniority and job security based on tenure rather than student outcomes.  Of course, measuring student success and being able to statistically tie it to teacher performance are perennial dilemmas.  There is broad support for great pay and benefits to retain and reward teachers.  However, as the national crisis in education becomes more acute, (only 71% of kids graduate from high school) it is clear that cultivating and retaining only the exceptional teachers is imperative.


Here in Bellevue, Washington, we have a brand new superintendent of schools.  Recently she said that if all the stakeholders invested in public education would simply focus on “student success,” there would be unity of purpose.  Not sure how that will play out with the teachers, when for example, what’s best for the kids (only the most exceptional teachers) and what’s best for the teachers (job security) are mutually exclusive.  Of course, in many occupations, even the less than competent linger around for years.  Should teachers, as a profession, be held to a higher standard because of the critical nature of their work?  What would that look like, in practice?   



  1. findingschools says:

    Any solution is further complicated because most measures of success, quantitative in nature, start out with the worthy goal of improving accountability and rewarding the best teachers, but end with teachers “teaching to the test.” What results are classrooms where students are discouraged from asking questions, where time is not allowed for teaching of higher order thinking skills and creativity simply doesn’t have a place. In addition, often these tests are minimal competency exams, which don’t challenge the top students, a shame for them and a travesty for society.

    Creative solutions to this age old problem, anyone?

  2. findingschools says:

    When I asked my children who were their best teachers throughout their school journey, they were able to quickly name them and I am sure they will never forget their names. When I asked the boys why they were great teachers,there was often a significant pause as they thought about how to articulate why these teachers were so memorable. When they did answer, their responses were complex but always included comments about how the teacher made the students feel respected and listened to. A sense of humour and compassion were usually mentioned too. Occationally they even mentioned how much they learned about the subject. Relationship building is key and at different stages I am sure some of these teachers were the reason our boys either remained engaged at school or began to explore certain higher learning paths or career choices. How can this be measured? Teacher success should be measured in a qualitative way rather than using a quantitaive model using student outcomes as the measure of success. Just ask the students.

  3. Karen says:

    The person in front of the classroom, the teacher that the student interacts with and learns from 6 hours a day makes all the difference in a child’s education. The public school curriculum is state mandated but HOW that subject is taught makes the difference of how much a child learns. Can that teacher inspire? motivate? bring to life what they are teaching? Can that teacher understand the different learning styles of a student and be able to visually, verbally, experientially teach them the material? Great teachers should be respected and paid well. Like parents, they influence the next generation and are remembered when that student becomes an adult. I still remember my 3rd grade teacher, my 5th grade teacher and my Latin teacher from high school. They taught me well, made me laugh, made me feel good about myself and life and I can still read Latin!

  4. N K says:

    Each of my children has so far met only 1 teacher each in all their years of schooling – who inspired them, pushed them to greater heights and who though tough, taught them to excel and do their personal best at all times! We need teachers to whom things matter – who are sincere in their approach to teaching and understand what an impact they can have on tomorrow’s generation!

  5. Jeannie says:

    Excellence in education begins at the top of the school with school administrators who encourage supportive teachers, and staff to pursue life-long learning, and study which is brought back to the classroom and students. A community that values and demonstrates education may be all-encompassing, and the safety net for all learners. It is hard to be all things to each student all the time. The school librarian, administrator, reading or learning specialist, nurse, custodian, or cafeteria lady may demonstrate interest in students and encourage learning. Students need positive role models wherever their learning journey takes them.

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