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Great Teachers Make a Lasting Difference, Studies Show

Publication date: May 15, 2015

by Charles Honey

Kent ISD, MI —  The old adage that having one great teacher can make a big difference in a student’s life is true, research shows – especially for a student struggling with poverty.

Not surprisingly, having more than one great teacher can make an even bigger difference.

“We can see a huge difference in kids who have even one highly effective teacher,” said Sarah Winchell Lenhoff, director of policy and research for The Education Trust-Midwest, a research and advocacy group. “Even in one school year, we’ve seen highly effective teachers get one and one-half to two years of (academic) growth compared to an average teacher.”

The impact is particularly high for impoverished students, who may enter school several grade levels behind, Lenhoff said. For them, having three highly effective teachers in a row “can actually close the achievement gap between groups of students, both racial and economic gaps.”

Closing those gaps is crucial early on, she added. If students are reading at grade level by third grade, from then on they are “reading to learn instead of learning to read” in all subjects.

Recent studies have helped refine how to measure effective teaching, Lenhoff said. One way is by comparing standardized test scores when students begin the school year to those when they leave, producing a “value-added” ranking for the teacher. Other ways include evaluations by principals and surveys of students. All three methods are being employed at Palmer Elementary and other Grand Rapids Public Schools, and all are “good measures of teachers’ effectiveness,” Lenhoff said.

Better Teachers Can Mean Higher Income

Effective teachers can do more than raise grades. A recent, extensive study by three economists found they can raise job earnings and college-going rates when students become adults.

The study, published in 2013, traced the test data and adult outcomes of more than 1 million students in a large urban school district, with family incomes similar to those in Grand Rapids Public Schools. Students who had one great elementary or middle school teacher earned on average 2 to 2.5 percent more as adults, and were 2 percent more likely to enter college, said study co-author Jonah Rockoff.

Although the earnings difference may seem modest, the impact over the course of a student’s lifetime is significant, said Rockoff, an associate professor of business at the Columbia Graduate School of Business. For a whole classroom, it adds up to approximately $260,000, he noted.

“We can’t say for sure why it is having a great teacher in fifth grade leads you to make more money as an adult,” said Rockoff, who co-authored the study with Raj Chetty and John Friedman. “I would argue it’s most likely a lot of the earnings impact is putting kids on a better footing to succeed and graduate from high school, making it into a college or a better college, and therefore getting them better prepared for a career.”

Rockoff and Lenhoff agree that transferring the most effective teachers to poorly performing schools could help close achievement gaps. But Michigan first must do a better job of setting measures of effective teaching, then find ways to get them in the lowest-performing schools, Lenhoff said. She recently testified before the Senate Education Committee on proposed teacher evaluation requirements, noting that 97 percent of Michigan teachers were rated effective or highly effective last year.

“Michigan does not yet do a very good job of saying ‘these teachers are truly excellent, these teachers need more support,’ ” she said.

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