Podcast response: What makes teachers (or Jeremy Lin) great?

Lindsay Whorton is a doctoral student studying teachers and education in the  Comparative Social Policy program at Oxford University. She has previously worked for the education division of the Kauffman Foundation.

A lot of people in the basketball world, including Kobe Bryant, have been wondering how (almost) everyone in the NBA missed Jeremy Lin. In case you have missed the ‘Jeremy Lin furor’ (can I still say Linsanity now that he has copyrighted the catch-phrase?), Lin—a former point guard at Harvard—went from obscurity to stardom overnight, rising from the NBA development league and the deep recesses of the New York Knicks’ bench to emerge as the unlikely starter and improbable star of the resurgent team.

Lin led the Knicks to seven-straight wins, building his individual resume and a cult following along the way. In a few weeks, he’s already been labeled a ‘good’ and even (prematurely) ‘great’ player.

But the thing that Kobe and most basketball fans want to know is: how did we not see this coming? How did we not recognize the inputs, whatever they may be—basketball IQ, court vision, speed, passing ability, etc.—that make up a good/great player?

I wonder if we should be asking the same questions in response to the literature on teacher quality—to which Erik Hanushek has been a significant contributor over the last 30 years. Hanushek has contributed to an important body of research that has demonstrated what we seem to know implicitly—that teachers make a difference and measurably impact student achievement.

But here’s the problem: we don’t know what “great teachers” look like.

Studies that talk about teachers in the 90th and 10th percentile are classifying them on the basis of their measured impact on student achievement. Therefore, it isn’t surprising at all that great teachers—identified on the basis of their contribution to student achievement—make a significant contribution to student achievement.

To use another example, let’s say we define great basketball players as those who score a lot of points. Although there are other measures of greatness, scoring receives the most attention—just like test scores for teachers.  Then we wouldn’t be surprised by research that demonstrated that great players score more than average or bad ones.

If we were managers of an NBA team, we wouldn’t find such research interesting or even helpful. Instead, we would want someone to break down the characteristics, traits, or attributes that great players have in common—the indicators that we could use to identify great talent for our team.

Research on teacher quality continues to reiterate that ‘teachers matter’ and to connect the importance of teachers to all kinds of outputs, but it rarely provides much information about the characteristics, dispositions, knowledge, or skills that could be used to identify teachers who have the potential to be great. This is a huge problem and a major limitation of the dominant research agenda around teacher quality.

I wonder if the research agenda around teacher quality is myopic because our faith in the power of incentives (like merit pay) and other market-based solutions has blinded us to other possible answers. Merit pay and ‘appropriate incentives’ functions as a kind of ‘if you build it, they will come’ philosophy. Because we believe that ‘the talented’ will come running through market-based interventions, we have spent all of our research energy trying to identify what the incentives should look like and how big they should be in order to attract the ‘best and brightest’ into teaching. This kind of thinking leads to sloppy generalizations about what qualities are important in teachers and widespread neglect of important research questions.

Why are we still doing the same studies showing that ‘teachers matter’ without delving into the characteristics that help us to understand why some teachers are (much) more effective than others? What traits (characteristics, dispositions, knowledge and skills) distinguish the teachers in the 90th percentile from those in the 10th? Is it just the ‘TFA effect’ (i.e. these teachers are just much smarter or higher-achieving than others), or is it something else?

Speaking of TFA, instead of more tit-for-tat research papers that nit-pick over marginal differences between TFA corp members and their traditionally certified peers, more research would be useful on what distinguishes the best TFA corp members (and there are certainly some great teachers coming out of TFA) from their less effective peers. We could then compare those findings to studies that attempt to unpack the differences (either in dispositions and characteristics or in classroom practices) between great and average traditionally certified teachers. Maybe we’d find that the debate isn’t actually about TFA versus non-TFA, but instead about being smarter about what good teaching requires and what great teachers look like.

If we knew this, we could expand the conversation beyond simply creating smart incentives to attract the right people into teaching. We could:

  • Think about how to restructure how teachers are trained to align with good teaching practices and to develop the necessary skills and dispositions.
  • Develop smart and savvy HR practices within central offices to tailor their recruitment and screen candidates based on attributes that really matter.
  • Evaluate and train teachers in order to increase their effectiveness.
  • Improve the effectiveness of incentives for teachers in the teaching profession by targeting the incentives in ways that illuminate the production function of teaching.

I’ve got nothing against the market. And I think that given the urgency of the challenges that we face in education, we have to be willing to look outside our walls and paradigms to find solutions. But the market isn’t superman, and I’m tired of waiting for it to solve our problems. Let’s diversify our research portfolio.

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