As the film Waiting for Superman has reinvigorated efforts to fire incompetent teachers and hire smarter ones, some research paints a different picture. Discover what current research suggests about the differences of school quality and what is attributable to non-school factors in this informative blog.

A new, well-documented essay by Richard Rothstein unpacks many of the myths about improving public education, including the role that teachers play in closing the student achievement gap.

The media frenzy over Davis Guggenheim’s Waiting for Superman documentary has reinforced the conventional wisdom offered up by many self-labeled reformers that we can have better schools by simply  recruiting smarter teachers and firing incompetent ones.

But Rothstein points to “decades of social science research” revealing that two-thirds of the difference in the quality of one school compared to another is attributable to non-school factors. He writes:

…(O)n average, disadvantaged children who have high-quality teachers will do better than similar children whose teachers are less adequate. But good teachers alone, for most children, cannot fully compensate for the disadvantages many children bring to school. As we noted, differences in the quality of in-school experiences can explain about one-third of the differences in achievement.

And some of the key in-school factors that do make a difference have to do with the conditions under which teachers work — including access to quality curriculum materials and whether or not they have opportunities to learn from each other. Smart teachers, in other words, must have consistent opportunities to use their smarts to advance learning.

Our own CTQ research shows that other conditions also matter a great deal, including teachers’ levels of preparation for the students they teach; whether or not they are assigned to grades and subjects for which they have been trained; and whether school programs are connected and well-aligned with after-school learning opportunities.

Rothstein’s demystification of the often hyperbolic claims about how to accomplish school reform sheds new light on the complex relationship between teaching quality and student achievement. If we are willing to pay attention to the facts and solid research he brings to bear on the issue, we can get serious about creating a unified vision for how all students can have the public education they need and deserve.

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