What makes an effective teacher? What’s the meaning of life? What do women want? (Blame Freud for that last one, not me.) These three questions have excited so much postulating and pontificating that many thinkers have given up on trying to answer them at all, instead resigning themselves to the apparent inevitability of resolving such baffling conundrums. However, recently, two of America’s best major magazines have run thought-provoking features intended to address the first query above.
Malcolm Gladwell (author of the bestsellers Blink, Outliers, and The Tipping Point) reported in December 2008 on the burgeoning field of statistical quantification as it relates to the field of education in The New Yorker. Gladwell summarizes the findings of one expert in the piece as showing that “the difference between good teachers and poor teachers turns out to be vast,” noting that teacher competence has a far greater impact on student achievement than class size or even (perceived) school quality. Another expert—Jacob Kounin—emphasizes the importance of what he calls “withitness”—a preternatural awareness of a class’s immediate climate.
One researcher interviewed by Gladwell was Bob Pianta of the University of Virginia, who reviewed tapes of classroom teachers and pointed out such instructional behaviors positively correlated to achievement as presenting content in a manner personalized to the students’ lives, and allowing flexibility in providing for students’ needs to move around.
Startlingly, the article also cites Thomas J. Kane, an economist at Harvard’s school of education, Douglas Staiger, an economist at Dartmouth, and Robert Gordon, a policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, as noting that teacher training, education, and credentials have absolutely no significant bearing on quality teaching and, therefore, student achievement. Apparently, it’s not what they know and have done, it’s what they do and are.
Similarly, the Winter 2009 issue of New York’s City Journal (the policy publication of the Manhattan Institute) includes an article called “The New Number Crunchers,” by Marcus A. Winters, whose subtitle demonstrates its applicability to the thesis here: “Quantitative measurement is telling us more about school performance.”
Winters notes the same trend as Gladwell—that analysis of data is increasingly illuminating our understanding of what makes a good teacher, including the fact that “thanks to modern econometric studies, we can say with confidence that a teacher’s ability to produce student proficiency does not depend on experience and advanced degrees.” However, Winters also concedes the limitations of such analysis, noting that incentive pay for teacher performance shows improvements in student achievement, but not drastically or reliably. Ultimately, Winters is inconclusive about the specifics of superior pedagogy.
…So, the question now is: are great teachers born or made?